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Pumpkin Food Safety

Posted in Food Safety on October 10, 2018

It’s pumpkin season! Pumpkins are a decorative staple for fall, and they’re good for you as well: rich in vitamin A, potassium, zinc and fiber, the pumpkin packs a nutritional punch and is delicious to boot. You can roast it, puree it for a soup, or bake it into a pie. If you’re looking forward to eating pumpkin this fall, take note: we’ve prepared some food safety guidelines to make sure that you don’t contract any untoward pathogens while enjoying the big orange culinary vegetable that’s actually a fruit (and a type of squash to boot). Here is everything you need to know about Pumpkin Food Safety.

Don’t Eat Jack

Firstly: don’t eat your jack-o-lantern pumpkin. This is probably obvious to most, for a number of different reasons. The sort of pumpkins that make for good jack-o-lanterns generally don’t make for good eating. Their flesh is altogether too stringy, and they have a much higher water content than pumpkins for eating do, and they’re not as sweet. Those are all good reasons not to eat jack-o-lantern pumpkins. Other good reasons include that the pumpkin is carved open and left sitting outside for days, weeks, or longer, which is a nightmare for food safety, to put it mildly. Furthermore, jack-o-lanterns are usually festooned with a small candle inside to provide light; this candle will taint the inside of the jack-o-lantern with smoke and wax, neither of which make for particularly good eating.

Which Ones?

What about pumpkins that are intended for eating, like the pie pumpkins and sweet sugar pumpkins that are smaller and sweeter than their jack-o-lantern cousins? The Michigan State University agricultural extension provides some helpful tips. If you’re picking out a pumpkin or a winter squash that you intend to eat, be sure to check out the rind before you buy. You’ll want to avoid soft spots or any other signs of premature spoilage.

Spoiled Pumpkins

Spoiled pumpkin isn’t very tasty, but that’s not the main problem with it: a damaged pumpkin rind is an opening for pathogens – a vector by which they can move from the outside in, settling into the edible part of the fruit to thrive and multiply. If there’s damage to the rind and pathogens have already penetrated it, your food safety precautions taken after the fact all might be for naught, and an otherwise careful person might contract a case of food poisoning or worse despite attending to good food safety practice with due diligence.

Picking out an unspoiled pumpkin with an intact rind is the first step. Next, you should attend to the washing of the pumpkin in question. You’ll want to give it a good rinse once you’ve made it back to your kitchen but before you bust out your knives. This step ensures that you wash away any pathogens, dirt, or agricultural chemicals that might be hitching a ride on the pumpkin’s surface.

If you skip this step, perhaps thinking that you don’t intend to eat the rind anyways, you’re running an unnecessary risk; anything undesirable on the rind can reach the edible flesh of the pumpkin through the cutting and carving process. The corollary here is that you should also make sure that the utensils and cutting surfaces you’re employing to carve up your pumpkin are similarly clean; give them a wash as well, if you haven’t already.

What to do?

What should you do with the pumpkin after you’ve carved it up? So many options: you can make a pie, a puree, a roast, or a stew. Pumpkin is quite versatile, and it’s been cultivated as a staple food in the Americas for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. You’ve got lots of choices.

After you’re done, you might well have some uncooked pumpkin leftovers. The University of Michigan suggests that you freeze excess pumpkin or can it for later perusal. They recommend that you do this with whole chunks of pumpkin instead of a butter or a puree.

Storage

There’s a reason for that. Prior to 1989, the federal government maintained guidelines for the storage of pumpkin puree. Those recommendations were withdrawn because of the range of variation in purees made from different pumpkins with different methods. Depending on what you’re starting with and how you’re blending it, you might end up with a whole range of different viscosities; some pumpkins blend relatively thick, while others come out much thinner.

This variation has implications for the long-term storage of pumpkin butter or puree. Variations in thickness, acidity, and water availability create different environments for the growth of bacteria; that makes uniform guidelines recommendations for food safety difficult. Many pumpkins are relatively low in acid compared to other popular foods for canning.

Combined with the pureeing process, the low acidity of pumpkins creates a favorable environment for the growth of bacteria. Should those bacteria make it into a puree with enough water and the right pH, they can thrive and grow, producing toxins that might harm the unlucky soul who takes the canned pumpkin puree off the shelf when they’re feeling peckish. One particular sort of bacteria named in pumpkin-canning guidelines by the University of Georgia is Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism if it’s allowed to spread through a jar of pumpkin puree. Complicating this problem is the fact that many home canning operations aren’t capable of heating the pumpkin puree to a high enough temperature to kill off these microscopic dangers.

There are nonetheless safe, recommended methods for the canning or freezing of pumpkins. Cut it into 1 inch cubes, stick it in the pressure canner, and you should achieve high enough temperatures to kill off any unwanted microbes or toxins. If you’re planning on freezing the pumpkin, the University of Michigan recommends that you cook it first. Bake, steam, or boil what you plan to save before sticking it in a freezer-proof container, and you should be able to pull it back out of cold storage within nine months to a year without any worries.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)