REDUCING FOOD WASTE: Understanding how long preserved foods are “good”

I started Can-Do Real Food after working part of one growing season at a farm and becoming aware for the first time just how much food never even reaches people who want to eat. Farmers regularly pull aside veggies and fruit that are imperfectly shaped or start aging while new produce is being harvested. Consumers want the best looking stuff, of course, so farmers are used to feeding their imperfect items into the compost pile or as additives to chicken or pig food.

While I take responsibility for reducing food waste once it gets to me, I very much understand that the volume that ends up in my compost pile instead of my stomach is a teeny tiny amount of waste compared to other places along the food supply line. However, I still want to reduce that as much as possible. After all, I am also wasting my money to purchase food if I have to throw it away! One way is to be aware of those dates that are stamped or written on all commercially prepared foods and to understand them. Then you can apply the same concept to your own home-preserved items, whether they are frozen, canned, dehydrated, smoked or fermented.

One of the conundrums as a commercial food processor was that I had was to determine WHICH standard to use: “use by” or “best by”. There are NO guidelines from the government other than the mandate I use something!

“Use by” implies that the food is unsafe after that date. I know I stopped my youngest from pouring out a half-empty gallon of milk because the “use by date” had passed. You can imagine the “mean mommy” experience that required him to actually sniff (okay, it smells okay) and TASTE (do I have to? YES!) to teach that there is no magic event that instantly occurs that makes something bad at a specific date.

The mayo I purchased a month or so ago has a Best By date with plenty of time to use in other households but we don’t use mayo much……..

A word here that expiration dates on medication also has some wiggle room but I am not an expert on this. If you wonder if you can take something that “expired” 5 years ago……ask! A pharmacist is a good resource.

Back to food. I preferred to use “best by”. In the first season when I learned to can I put up some carrots. I dated my jar and never reached for it until a couple of years later when I was making soup and thought carrots would be a good addition but had none in the frig. I checked the seal….good. I looked at the contents inside the jar. The color was appropriate and there were no little bubbles of gas in the liquid, so far so good. I opened it….no bad aroma. So far all signs show it is SAFE to eat.

But when I put a fork in to pull a carrot out, it dissolved immediately into an orange cloud. It was certainly past the BEST time to enjoy it.

So, since then I put the date on the lid with what it is. (I am long past trying to convince myself I will remember what that jar of bluish-purple color jam is or which spice mix is in that tomato mix in that jar.) I put new jars behind any older ones of the same recipe when I store on my shelves. That way, the older stuff SHOULD be used first.

And remember, share. Seriously, if you have not eaten that jar of peaches that you put up in 1999, please toss it. If it’s from 2016, open one and if it is okay, plan how to use them. And do not make more until you do!

Our State Fair award-winning instant soup…and here is the one in MY cupboard, showing a best by date of last July. I know that means I prepared the mix in June from the pumpkins’ harvest in the fall of 2018. It is dry and good for at least 5 years or longer. That is one of the joys of dehydrated foods.

So, bottom line: besides the fact that this shows one more advantage that dehydrated foods hold longer safely than canned products, most are SAFE to eat beyond the date on the container, but the texture may be diminished the longer you move from initial processing.

The Many Steps to Approval

The decision to become a commercial food processor was made with a great deal of thought, good advice and, amazingly, a lot of naivety. You just don’t know what you don’t know on any new endeavor and I was in for an interesting ride the first 18 months.

I understood I needed to get certified by the Better Processing School and when I checked to see when the course would be offered in Oregon I discovered it was two weeks before I looked. Okay, not a horrible roadblock, in fact, there was no roadblock at all. The program is one that is established on a Federal level, so although each state offers it generally through its land grant college, University of California Davis offered an online program and so, that was that. Easy enough.better process school

I needed to find a commerical kitchen and that was easier. I knew the kitchen at McMinnville Cooperative Ministries had been designed about ten years ago to enable a crew of novice volunteers to work together to feed 300-400 people each Saturday morning. The space is amazing. The features are abundant. The kitchen is well known to the local Health Department and to the other officials who must approve features before a kitchen is allowed for commercial operation. All was well.2014-07-19 09.00.01I needed to obtain a food processor license from the Oregon Department of Agriculture and there were a myriad of requirements for that. I obtained the license to make jams and other concoctions with sugar but the recipes requiring lemon juice or vinegar fell into another category. Those needed a sample analyzed by a lab specializing in food and only those with numbers meeting or exceeding a safety standard could then move on to the next step.  Any delinquents could be modified and then, if passing the lab step, could join the others.  ph approval

The next step was for those lab numbers and the recipe itself to be reviewed and approved by the Processing Authority. Here in Oregon it is Mark Daeschel, a PhD of Food Science at OSU. He determines the safe parameters for processing and and then issues a letter indicating those requirements.

Only then can I submit all recipes with a copy of Dr. Daeschel’s letter to the Federal government for acceptance.  They are working on streamlining that system; the first time it took 5 weeks, this time it took about 15 hours.

Following all those levels of approval I have another visit by the state Department of Agriculture to review my record keeping and make sure all those pesky i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.2016 license

Then I can start to cook.  Good thing the weather was cooler so far this summer and the tomatoes are still on their way, not stacked up waiting on my action!

So, basically, the step most home canners take is deciding what they want to preserve and finding a good recipe. While Can-Do Real Food is small and makes batches of food just a few times larger than the home canner, we must comply with all the food safety rules and regulations like the mega corporations.

And happy to do so. We are a local to local enterprise, sourcing our ingredients as much as possible within 20 minutes of McMinnville and selling to consumers also within that small area. mission

 

 

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Test Kitchen Continues

Gabrielle Keeler and Steven Berger
Gabrielle Keeler and Steven Berger

Because our food processing endeavor is so closely tied to the local harvest, we enjoyed November through May with very little time spent in the commerical kitchen. We were not slacking, however. Not only did we attend multiple conferences and seminars, we also worked pretty intensely in the “test kitchen” prior to the First Annual Tasting Supper the end of March.

Ranee Solmonsson and Michelle Berger
Ranee Solmonsson and Michelle Berger

At that time we also asked our farm partners to give us an idea of what they would be planting so we could begin to think about new recipes to develop during the harvest of 2016.

We are in that harvest already. Fruits have been ripening for the past few weeks and we have begun processing some vegetables as well. Greens are dried for use in dehydrated products like soups and carrots and zucchini have roles both in the canned as well as dried product line.

Of course, tomatoes are coming. I feel like John Snow warning everyone “Winter Is Coming” in the Game of Thrones. When the tomatoes start, they don’t stop until the beginning of November! So, while we are excited to be in ramp-up production phase, we know the days in the kitchen will be getting longer.

Meanwhile, we have veggies coming in a volume we did not fully anticipate. One is beets.beetsbWe currently have a recipe for pickled beets in the approval process. This is a 3-step government regulated process required for all recipes that use the addition of an acid, vinegar or lemon juice for example, as part of the food safety requirements. Pickled beets uses vinegar and so, a small sample of the finished recipe was brought in to the lab that tests for brix, water activity and pH.  After that determination is made, if all is well (and we expect it will be) the recipe and the lab information then is reviewed by the Oregon Processing Authority, a professor of Food Science at OSU.  Finally, after he gives his approval, we submit each recipe once again to the federal government for their review.  This process can take 3 to 5 weeks so balancing the anticipated harvest and the production in the kitchen is important.

We have beets available now, however, and we can not start making pickled beets yet.  While they can be stored for a while, Tomatoes Are Coming, and we do not want to build a stockpile of “MUST DO” tasks. So, back into the Test Kitchen to play with beets and see how they can be prepared in a dehydrated format that will be enjoyed by people.

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We played with two recipes and believe we have some winners. With good friends willing to come be guinea pigs for a tasting supper, we managed to feed them and keep their friendship, too. Next comes production which involves the dehydration process of each ingredient, and then the assembly of each product with cooking instructions.

I’m holding this one close for another week or so but will soon disclose the new products. I think we have something people can really enjoy AND we may be edging into the “gourmet” area with one.

Playing with food is FUN!