Self Preservation: Master Food Preservers Confront Food Safety Issues

Master Food Preserver Ernest Miller teaches about jar inspection at the UC Cooperative Extension
Master Food Preserver Ernest Miller teaches about jar inspection at the UC Cooperative Extension
Felicia Friesema

Ernest Miller, Executive Chef at Farmer's Kitchen and Master Food Preserver (MFP) Instructor for the UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) (also we love that their website is ucanr.org), has his hands full. As the instructor for the first Los Angeles County MFP class offered by the UCCE in over a decade, he's expected to help grow the program from scratch, sending out this first batch of volunteers (this writer among them) in just a few months.

UCCE had over 50 applications for only 15 spots, which might be why they opted to fill the class with 18 instead. The list reads a bit like a who's who of sustainable food in L.A.: Stephen Rudicel, owner of The Press in Claremont and co-owner of Mariposa Creamery; Rachael Narins from Chicks with Knives; Alexandra Agajanian, Assistant Market Manager of the Hollywood Farmers Market; Karen Klemens of Mothercluck Jams and Preserves; Milli Macen-Moore, Master Gardener at Milagro Allegro Community Garden; Meg Glasser from Food Forward; and on and on. For those interested in canning and preserving, it's an exciting time to be in Los Angeles.

MFPLA students peel and segment a case of Murcott tangerines from Friend's Ranches in Ojai
MFPLA students peel and segment a case of Murcott tangerines from Friend's Ranches in Ojai
Felicia Friesema

"I think that the most exciting part of the class is the quality of trainees," said Miller. "We have accomplished chefs, prize-winning jam makers, 4-H leaders, several Master Gardeners and others with varied experiences too numerous to mention. Even better, every trainee is dedicated to volunteer work to teach safe food preservation throughout the many communities of Los Angeles County."

Which is entirely the point. Aside from earning the title of Master Food Preserver, MFP's are also dedicated volunteers, expected to fulfill 30 hours or more of service per year to local communities in need. These first students, says Miller, will also form the leadership core of the new program, helping to form policy and organize events that will shape the paths of future classes.

"This first group of trainees was specifically chosen to be a core group to build the Master Food Preserver organization here in Los Angeles," said Miller. "I expect great things from them. I hope that as individuals and as a group they will develop unique and influential projects that will assist in improving Los Angeles' local foodshed."

So what exactly does that mean? An MFP's job is to educate people on how to preserve their food safely using research-based methods. Taste, texture, and uses are all part of that equation, but first and foremost is always safety. While today's recorded cases of botulism attributed to unsafe home canning procedures are pretty low (about 20 a year throughout the country), we owe those low numbers to the efforts of the USDA, and educators like MFPs, who work to keep the public up to date on food safety.

This was a huge issue following World War I, when the government had to respond to a series of botulism outbreaks following the popularity of Victory Gardens and, subsequently, home canning. Today, we're seeing a similar jump in the number of people interested in urban farming, turning backyards, front yards, and porches into mini-farms to feed a family. Finding ways to preserve those harvests is a natural offshoot of the movement, making the availability of safe food preservation information vital in preventing a repeat of the past.

The first two days of class have already exposed MFP students to myriad microscopic photos, statistics, graphs, temperature readings, pH levels of hundreds of different foods, and all of the accompanying measures we take to prevent illness while making jams, jellies, pickles, sauces, and other cupboard-bound foods. The underlying brainpower in this already skilled group of students has already made this class series more like a weekly food safety roundtable than any sort of regurgatative teacher-student model. The discussion always circles back to what's been proven: clean hands, clean tools, clean food, and tested methods yield safe results every time.

"We will be doing another class in the future, though no date has been set yet. There were many more qualified applicants than we had room in the class, even when we squeezed in three more," said Miller regarding future classes.

As the class progresses, we'll be posting a primer for safe food preservation, along with some preservation recipes, which should come in handy as we hit prime berry season in the weeks to come.

The final product - our first canned batch of tangerines in light syrup. Next week - Jam!
The final product - our first canned batch of tangerines in light syrup. Next week - Jam!
Felicia Friesema

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