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Published September 13, 2013, 12:56 PM

Prairie Fare: Food-grade containers must meet higher standards

In my role as a food and nutrition specialist, I often field questions from Extension agents as well as other professionals and consumers. These are a few questions that I have answered lately and through the years:

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

In my role as a food and nutrition specialist, I often field questions from Extension agents as well as other professionals and consumers. These are a few questions that I have answered lately and through the years:

“Is it OK to reuse commercial salsa jars and screw-top lids to can my own salsa?”

“Is it OK to use brown paper grocery bags to prepare snacks? I’d like to use one to shake powdered sugar on a cereal snack. I’ve heard you can cook in brown paper bags, too. Is that right?”

“Is it safe to make omelets by boiling the egg mixture in a Ziploc bag? I want to make them for a camping trip.”

“Is it safe to use terra cotta flower pots for baking bread and cakes? The cakes look so cute in these containers!”

“I have a brand new galvanized garbage can. It has never held trash. Can I use it to serve punch?”

I could go on and on with the questions I’ve received about various unusual containers used to prepare, cook and serve food.

The No. 1 rule for answering any of these questions is to consider the original purpose for the container. Was the container meant to prepare or serve food, with the food in direct contact with the container?

Containers that are “food grade” must meet higher standards for sanitation and safety.

Let’s consider each of the containers mentioned in the opening questions and the potential food safety issues.

• For safety, we do not recommend reusing commercial screw-top lids on jars processed in a water-bath canner (or pressure canner). However, you could prepare fresh salsa and store it in these jars in your fridge to use within several days. Your family might think you bought the salsa.

Although some commercial glass jars can be used for canning acidic foods (such as fruit) in a water-bath canner, your best bet is to use Mason jars. These jars can be used indefinitely unless the jars develop cracks or nicks.

When canning, be sure to use two-piece canning lids, such as those made by Kerr or Ball. If your jars do not seal, you have 24 hours to reprocess the food using new lids. You can reuse the screw bands.

You can learn all about home food preservation with research-tested materials available at www.ag.ndsu.

edu/food (click on “food preservation” or type in your topic of interest in the “search” box).

• Brown paper grocery bags: Yes, brown paper grocery bags are intended to hold food. However, the food typically placed in brown paper bags is in packages or containers. Grocery bags are not a sanitary container for mixing or coating snacks with powdered sugar. Instead, use a bowl or a zip-type plastic bag.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not recommend using grocery bags for cooking, either. The bag may ignite and cause a fire in the oven. The ink, glue and recycled materials can emit toxic fumes. Use oven cooking bags or a pan instead.

• Plastic bags: Boiling omelets in a Ziploc bag has been something of a fad the past few years. When I first received the question, I contacted a staff member at the company’s consumer help line.

The company representative told me that Ziploc brand bags cannot be used to boil food. The bags are made from polyethylene plastic with a softening point of about 195 degrees. Therefore, they could melt when exposed to 212 degrees.

Some companies produce “boilable” plastic bags that can be used to cook foods. Read the manufacturer’s statement to learn about the bags’ suggested use. Don’t push the limits.

• Terra cotta flowerpots: Some clay containers are designed for food use. However, clay pots from the gardening center are not meant to be in direct contact with food. The clay in garden pots may contain heavy metals, such as lead. Some may crack or break in the oven, too.

If you completely line a clay pot with food-grade material, such as aluminum foil, you can use it to serve food. Better yet, before serving food in it, line the pot with a smaller food-safe container from your kitchen cabinet.

• Galvanized trash cans, plastic trash cans or any type of trash can: If you were going to a party, would you really want to eat or drink from something meant to hold garbage?

Obviously, trash cans are not meant as serving containers. The plastic or metal used to make them is not food-grade, and chemicals from the plastic or metal may leach into the food. Acidic foods, such as punch, can pull harmful chemicals from the container into the beverage.

Here’s a tasty recipe that you can create in minutes.

Fresh Corn and Bean Salsa

1 (16-ounce) can black beans (reduced sodium), drained and rinsed

2 cups corn (cut from cob or frozen)

2 cup chunky salsa (mild or medium)

Drain and rinse beans. Cut the corn from the cob (or substitute frozen corn). Combine ingredients and refrigerate until serving. Serve with baked chips or whole-grain crackers.

Note: This recipe is not suitable for canning at home.

Makes 12 servings. Each serving has 90 calories, 17 grams of carbohydrate, 0 grams of fat, 5 grams of fiber and 230 milligrams of sodium.


Garden-Robinson is a food and nutrition specialist for the NDSU Extension Service

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