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UC Food Blog

Outdoor meals can be fun, easy and . . . dangerous?

Cooking and eating outdoors are favorite summer past times. But every year hundreds of thousands of people end up in emergency rooms, or worse, when basic food safety measures are ignored. Deadly bacteria can develop in some foods more rapidly in hot weather, warns a UC Cooperative Extension nutrition advisor.

"Temperatures are important factors in protecting your food. You want to be really careful that you keep hot food hot and cold food cold," stresses Patti Wooten-Swanson, UCCE nutrition, family, and consumer science advisor in San Diego County. Don't leave perishable food sitting out on the counter or the picnic table longer than necessary, she adds.

Food-borne illnesses peak in the summer months, mostly attributed to bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli when raw meats are not handled properly or not cooked to a high enough temperature, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Food-borne illness, what we commonly call food poisoning, is a very severe problem in the United States," says Wooten-Swanson in a video podcast and news release to Spanish-speaking consumers about the risks associated with cooking and eating outdoors.

A screen shot of the Spanish-language video podcast featuring Patti Wooten-Swanson.

"We don't typically think about that but about 75 million people get food-borne illnesses every year, and some people die," she told ANR News and Information Outreach in Spanish.

The actual number of food poisonings may be much higher since most people mistake food-borne illness with common flu and digestive problems. The symptoms are very similar: upset stomach, diarrhea, vomiting or nausea. The most likely victims are small children, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with an impaired immune system.

"So it's very important that we take very good care with the food that we are preparing and serving," says Wooten-Swanson.

That includes cut fresh fruit and vegetables, which can also develop deadly bacteria when left out for more than two hours without refrigeration and in less than an hour when the temperature rises above 90 degrees. That rule should also be observed with any food leftovers to prevent food contamination.

The CDCs estimate that about 325,000 people are hospitalized and 5,000 die in the U.S. due to food-borne illness every year. More than 1.4 million food poisonings and about 580 deaths per year are attributed to salmonella alone. Approximately 217,000 people get sick with E. coli contamination and the number of deaths is close to a hundred.

When barbecuing, Wooten-Swanson recommends keeping raw meats in the refrigerator or in a cooler - with plenty of ice – until the moment they are put on the grill. She suggests outdoors lovers and barbecue aficionados follow the basic recommendations issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this time of the year.

She advises cooks not to rely on the exterior appearance of meats as they are cooked on the grill. Chicken, steak or a hamburger patty might look well done or even charred on the outside, but its innermost parts may be undercooked. In most cases, bacteria are killed by heat only when the cooking temperature has reached 165 F degrees. The only way to know for sure is with a meat thermometer, says the UC nutrition advisor.

Safe barbecue (Photo: A. Hauffen)

Posted on Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 6:16 AM
  • Author: Alberto Hauffen

Victory Gardens: A boon in hard times

I collect gardening catalogs. To me, they represent life and productivity and the promise of family, good food and good health. They also provide a link to a simpler, agrarian past that I find comforting and restorative in these unsettling times. In a world where oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, violence seems unchecked, compassion towards the less fortunate seems to have evaporated and economic misery abounds, I find gardening catalogs a refuge of optimism. We need fewer bad things in this world and more good gardens.

I’ve spent more time this year sitting in the chair in my garden in the evening, thinking about what this small cultivated area says about these times, this world and my life. I’ve resisted buying many seeds this year; like others, the economy gives me jitters. Not that I’m without hope about the economy or the potential of gardens in this current presidential administration. Especially the latter, as the residents of the White House look favorably on sustainable and local food systems. Like our family, the first family has a garden on the front lawn. What’s more affirming than a front yard garden in hard times like these?

In hard times, Americans have always turned to gardening.

The Victory Gardens of World War I and World War II - and the garden efforts of the Great Depression - helped Americans weather hard times. These gardens helped the family budget, improved dietary practices; reduced the food mile and saved fuel, enabled America to export more food to our allies, beautified communities, empowered every citizen to contribute to a national effort, and bridged social, ethnic, class and cultural differences during times when cooperation was vital. Gardens were an expression of solidarity, patriotism and shared sacrifice. They were everywhere...schools, homes, workplaces and throughout public spaces all over the nation. No effort was too small. Americans did their bit. And it mattered.

Consider this: In WWI, the Federal Bureau of Education rolled out a national school garden program and funded it with War Department monies. Millions of students gardened at school, at home, and in their communities. A national Liberty Garden (later Victory Garden) program was initiated that called on all Americans to garden for the nation and the world. The success of home gardeners (and careful food preservation) helped the U.S. increase exports to our starving European Allies.

The WWII experience was equally successful. During 1943, some polls reported that three-fifths of Americans were gardening, including Vice President Henry Wallace, who gardened with his son. That same year, according to some estimates, nearly 40 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed stateside were grown in school, home and community gardens. In addition to providing much-needed food, gardening helped Americans unite around a positive activity. Gardens gave all Americans a way to provide service to the nation, enabling citizens on the home front to make significant contributions to the war effort.

Our nation again finds itself in challenging times. School, home and community gardens provide a way to respond positively to this period of uncertainty and change.

Editor's note: Join the author of this post, Rose Hayden-Smith, for a web presentation about the Victory Garden movement at 9 a.m. July 28.

Hayden-Smith will review historical case studies of Victory Gardens and current national policies and models. She will also discuss the future work needed to sustain the Victory Garden model as part of the overall local food movement. To wrap up the hour-long webinar, she will discuss urban agriculture and how the local food-systems movement is addressing a wide range of challenges facing Americans today.

Space is limited. Click here to reserve a webinar spot.

Posted on Monday, July 19, 2010 at 6:27 AM

Not so 'virgin' olive oil

Buyer beware, is the message of a new study from the UC Davis Olive Center, which found that many of the imported olive oils sold in California retail stores are not “extra virgin” oil as their labels claim they are.

Extra virgin olive oil is the top grade and priciest of olive oils.  To meet international standards, extra virgin must be removed from the olive without using heat or solvents.  It also has to meet specific criteria for chemical makeup, flavor and aroma.

However in the new study, researchers at UC Davis and in Australia discovered that 69 percent of the imported oils sampled, compared to just 10 percent of the California-produced oils sampled, failed to meet internationally accepted standards for extra virgin olive oil.

The imported oils tested were purchased from supermarkets and “big box” stores in three California regions: Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County. The California brands, however, were found only in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay Area.

Defects in those oils that failed to pass muster included oxidation from excessive temperature, light or aging and addition of cheaper refined olive oils.  Other flaws may have been linked to improper processing or storage and use of damaged or overripe olives.

The complete report from the study, which is the first of its kind from an American college or university, is available online from the UC Davis Olive Center at:

The study was funded by Corto Olive, California Olive Ranch and the California Olive Oil Council.

Anecdotal reports of low-quality olive oils lurking behind extra-virgin labels have been floating about for some time but this is the first “empirical proof” to support those suspicions, according to Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center..

“The intent of the study was to provide consumers and retailers with an accurate picture of the quality of olive oils now being marketed through grocery stores and other retail outlets in California,” said Flynn, noting that the United States is the third-largest consumer of olive oil in the world.

“Our hope is that these findings will lead to improved methods for evaluating extra virgin olive oil, and increased consumer confidence that “extra virgin” on the label means extra virgin in the bottle,” he said.

Posted on Friday, July 16, 2010 at 6:30 AM

Strawberry fields forever

Methyl iodide – yes, that volatile chemical that could find use as a soil fumigant – has been in the news lately, and mostly in a negative light. In April, California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation made a preliminary decision to approve the use of methyl iodide as a fumigant under strict conditions, and soon after received more than 50,000 public comments.

Methyl iodide, it turns out, is not only toxic, like all fumigants, it “can cause cancer, brain damage and miscarriages.” Its potential use in California’s strawberry fields in place of its ozone-depleting and toxic cousin, methyl bromide, is what shot the compound into news orbit.

Why phase out methyl bromide as a soil fumigant? Answer: Ozone loss up in the stratosphere, leading to more ultraviolet light penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere, leading, in turn, to increases in skin cancer. When methyl bromide is released in the lower atmosphere, a fraction gets transported into the stratosphere where it undergoes a series of chemical reactions leading to stratospheric ozone depletion.

Cousin methyl iodide, on the other hand, is photolyzed quickly in the lower atmosphere, leaving none of it to escape into the stratosphere.

While public opinion currently leans heavily against the use of methyl iodide as a soil fumigant replacement, James Sims, a professor emeritus of plant pathology at UC Riverside, supports its use.  For one thing, it delivers results similar to methyl bromide, he says, and, second, it can be used safely. He explains that it is not applied directly to plants; it is injected into the soil two weeks before any plants are planted.

Methyl iodide is a liquid boiling at 42.5 degrees C or 108.5 degrees F. Sims says it is therefore safer for workers to handle than a gas like methyl bromide. Moreover, it can be applied using the same equipment with few or no modifications, and it is effective in reducing pest, weed and plant disease problems. Other alternatives — solarization, anaerobic soil disinfestations, crop rotation, steaming, etc. — are not effective, Sims says.

Critics are not convinced of methyl iodide’s relative safety and growers, meanwhile, continue to insist that their fields need a fumigant that poses no harm to our precious ozone layer.

How then might the controversy play out? We will have to wait and see – for several weeks at least. After processing the public comments received, state officials plan to weigh in on the “controversial effort to register the fumigant methyl iodide.”
Posted on Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 6:29 AM

Oh no! Zucchini again!

I was only gone for 10 days, but when I came back the squash plants were just packed with zucchini — some that were as big as torpedoes (they got fed to the chickens) but many just the perfect size for harvest.  However, what do you do with 50 zucchini?  First stop, my neighbors. Got rid of 10 there.

Next, as 4th of July guests leave, they get a bag to take home; another 10 down . . . only 30 more squash to use or distribute.  What can you do?

Well, there are lots of ways to eat zucchini but I have found a couple of ways that are just yummy and healthy. 

The first recipe is easy.  

Zucchini and mozarella salad/appetizer

Slice the zucchini in lengthwise ¼ inch thick strips, drizzle with a little olive oil and grill on each side for a few minutes. Place the strips in a bowl with a little salt and pepper and a little more olive oil to cool. Then artfully place slices of fresh mozzarella cheese on plate along with the rolled up grilled zucchini strips, a handful of halved sun gold cherry tomatoes, fresh chopped basil, and a final little drizzle of olive oil. Makes a beautiful presentation and uses about 4 zucchini.

Only 26 left to use . . . .

Zucchini oven chips

This recipe, from Cooking Light, makes a great side dish with burgers or other grilled main course.

Slice the zucchini into rounds about ¼ inch thick. Dip into milk and then dredge in a mixture of seasoned breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. Then place on an oven proof rack sprayed with cooking spray. Bake for 30 minutes in a preheated oven at 425 F until brown and crispy.

This uses about 5 smaller zucchini. Only 21 left . . .

The next recipe is the ubiquitous zucchini bread. There are dozens of recipes for that. Each recipe uses about 3 cups of shredded zucchini, which is about 3 small or 2 larger zucchini. Now only 18 left.

Zucchini pie is a lovely main dish. You can use pre-packaged pie dough or crescent rolls or make your own dough from scratch.

Line your pie pan with the dough.

In a large sauté pan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Sauté 4 cups of thinly sliced zucchini (about 4 small or 3 larger squash) and ½ cup chopped onions until tender. Add 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, 2 cloves of garlic, ¼ teaspoon of oregano and salt and pepper to taste.

In another large bowl, mix 2 eggs and 2 cups of shredded mozzarella cheese together. Add the zucchini mixture and gently stir. Pour mixture into pie crust. Bake at 375 F for 20 minutes or until a knife inserted into the filling comes out clean.

That takes us down to 14 more zucchini left. Sigh . . . I guess I should have only put in 6 plants instead of 12.

However, the good thing about zucchini is that you don’t have to use them all. The chickens will love you if you feed them squash (you have to open the fruit up for them though) and of course you can leave bags of zucchini at the doorsteps of your friends or on the desk of your office mates. They won’t hate you too much . . .

Posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 6:38 AM

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