Putting science to work in judging canned goods at the State Fair

I’m a home canner, and I am very careful to follow the directions when I can for fear of botulism. And by very careful, I mean VERY CAREFUL; careful to the point that I get picked on by family members. But it’s OK; my motto is “better safe than sorry.”

So when it comes to the folks judging the canned goods, I have wondered if everyone is as particular as I try to be. After all, the judges will be tasting them.

So, come to find out, N.C. State University food science students and food safety specialist Ben Chapman test the pH levels of many of the canned goods to ensure what the judges taste is safe. The level of pH points to conditions that are conducive to botulism.

Kinsey Porter, a senior majoring in food science at N.C. State University is testing the pH level in a marmalade entry.

Kinsey Porter, a senior majoring in food science at N.C. State University tests the pH level in a marmalade entry.

“These volunteers give us their time, so the least we can do is make sure they are safe,” Chapman said.

On Monday afternoon seniors Chris Rupert, Kinsey Porter and Jacques Overdiep were busy testing jars of jams, jellies and marmalades, making sure the pH levels were below 4.6.

Chapman and his crew of volunteers were reviewing recipes, checking them against recipe sources that have the data behind them to ensure safety and quality.

Any entries that varied from one of three sources referenced in the rules (So Easy to Preserve, USDA’s Guide to Home Canning or the Ball Blue book) would be checked to see if the recipe was the same.

“Some of these old family recipes handed down from generation to generation actually have roots in the USDA’s guide. Some don’t. So we review the ingredients, quantities, ratio of acids to low acid food and processing times to see if things are in line with the sources we have safety information on,” Chapman said “It takes time but we want to run a competition that is safe for competitors and judges alike”

Testing involved a probe, meters and a blender. Canned goods with large chunks needed to be pureed to ensure a more even consistency.

Products were tested for about 20 seconds, or until the probe registered a reading. That number, along with the assigned entry number, is recorded in a file for reference.

“Last year, it took three hours to do the jams and jellies,” Porter said.

Chapman was expecting to test around 200 products in total, including all the salsas.

N.C. State University professor Ben Chapman and students Chris Rupert, left, Porter, center, and Jacques Overdiep talk about the testing process.

N.C. State University associate professor Ben Chapman and students Chris Rupert, left, Porter, center, and Jacques Overdiep talk about the testing process.

‘Processing foods correctly and using approved methods is essential if you plan to can safely, Chapman said. “low-acid foods require specific processing times, and to be canned under pressure to reduce the risk of botulism” he said.’

Chapman assured me I was right to follow the recipes to the letter.

The botulinum toxin is one of the most poisonous in the world.  And while botulism poisoning is rare, it can have deadly consequences. There are only about 145 cases of botulism reported annually, and of those, about 15 percent are caused by home-canned food, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

At the end of testing, Chapman tweeted out the hashtag, “#nobotulism,” which is always a welcome message.

Chapman’s take-away message for anyone canning or interested in canning is simple. “Use only recipes that have been tested, and don’t improvise when it comes to the recipes.”



About Merrie Go Round

Merrie Go Round is the midway alter-ego of Andrea Ashby, who has officially spent 252 days during the past 24 years at the N.C. State Fair. That's perfect attendance in case you were wondering. In addition to promoting the Fair, looking for untold Fair stories and working on various special events, I also spend a great deal of time roaming the grounds taking photos for the Website and State Fair publications. I like to keep my eyes and ears posted for the unusual and different things that make the State Fair such a great celebration of North Carolina people, traditions and history. I look forward to sharing with you the things I come across on my journey.

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