Master Food Preservers: Label literacy

By June 20, 2011

Food labels might not make the best-sellers list, but careful reading of care and handling instructions may prevent food borne illness. With the overwhelming choices of food available, from fresh to frozen, dried, canned and ready to eat, consumers must follow manufacturers’ guidelines when preparing, serving and storing food. If food becomes contaminated, serious illness, and perhaps death, may result.

Within the last few months, two serious cases of botulism occurred when consumers ignored directions to refrigerate prepared soup sold in plastic containers. In both instances, the consumer failed to refrigerate the soup, and upon heating it up noticed an “off” taste within a few bites and threw out the remainder of the soup.

Too late. Each of these people ended up hospitalized with botulism poisoning. Botulism can cause severe neurological side effects and require months of hospitalization, often on a ventilator … if death doesn’t occur first.

Fresh foods sometimes come with care labels on the packages. Meat and meat products carry labels reminding purchasers to keep the products refrigerated, to prepare on surfaces separate from other foods such as vegetables, and to cook thoroughly.

Neglecting any of these steps can not only encourage the growth of organisms responsible for food borne illness, but can spread bacteria and other microorganisms.

Never wash meat, chicken or eggs. This may spread the contaminants. Be sure to thoroughly cook these products to kill any lurking pathogens. A short internet search on will provide safe cooking temperatures for most foods, as well as safe handling instructions should the food not be labeled.

Sometimes consumers believe prepackaged foods such as lettuce and spinach may be eaten straight from the bag.

Guess again. If the label on the packaging clearly states that the food has been adequately cleaned, feel free to eat if. If not, be sure to rinse the produce under cold, running water for at least 15 seconds or follow washing directions on the label.

Look for storage instructions, too, as the distributer or manufacturer knows the best way to keep the product fresh for the longest amount of time.

One type of food safety labeling often gets just a quick glance. Microwave instructions must be followed precisely to avoid undercooking foods.

Most labels include instructions for different wattages of microwave ovens. Look to see which timing instructions work with the microwave the food is in. Do not ignore the standing time requirements. Most microwaved foods continue to cook even after the oven turns off, and the standing time allows the food to finish cooking completely. Freezing does not kill all microorganisms, so be sure to cook those frozen dinners thoroughly to avoid getting sick.

Manufacturers and distributors of food products test and review the proper methods of handling, storage and cooking for many types of food. Be sure to read the labels to avoid food borne illness and to optimize flavor and nutrition.

If you have any questions about safe home food preservation, call the Master Food Preservers and leave a message at 530-621-5506.  A Master Food Preserver will return the call.

The Master Food Preservers are also available free of charge to speak to organizations and clubs about food safety or food preservation topics. Just call the number above to arrange for a speaker for small or large groups.

For more information about the public education classes and activities, including the upcoming free public classes on food safety and pressure canning, be sure to go to the Master Food Preserver Website at

Ora Emmerich

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