Add the correct amount of vinegar and check the pH

One of the roles I inherited when I came to North Carolina is organizing the judges for annual home food preservation competition at the State Fair. The fair has a long history in scoring entries based on color, consistency, shapes and in some categories, taste.

According to the fair organizers we’re one of a handful of state fairs that allow judges to taste entries. During the 2014 competition a couple of judges tasted a canned product that was supposed to be pickled. If acidified correctly the safe processing step would be a boiling water bath.

One of the judges, as seasoned veteran of the process said she couldn’t taste any vinegar. We tested the pH was and it was 6.1; a nice environment for bot toxin production.mustard-relish-recall

Someone probably forgot to add the vinegar. And that put a couple of volunteers at risk for a devastating illness.

Sort of sounds like what happened at HardyWares Preserves in Nova Scotia (that’s in Canada).

According to CBC news the small Maritime food processor is pulling their mustard relish from the market because they made a mistake. And didn’t likely add enough vinegar to reduce the chance of botulism.

Larry and Margaret Hardy, from Necum Teuch, are the co-owners of HardyWares Preserves. They sell jams, jellies and relishes that they make in their home kitchen.

Their 250-millilitre bottle of mustard relish, packaged on Dec. 3, 2015, is being recalled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency because the relish could permit the growth of the bacteria that leads to botulism.

“It was a shock, an absolute shock. Because we’ve had nothing of this nature before,” said Larry Hardy.

Hardy said the agency didn’t tell him botulism toxin had been found in the product, but rather that the acid level of the relish was too low — which meant the bacteria could grow.

“It’s definitely human error, but my biggest guess is that I was busy and I was working away, and I probably put in not enough vinegar into the product,” he said.

“Whatever I did, I upset the balance of it.”

The Dec. 3 batch of mustard relish contained 21 jars. Hardy says he has accounted for all but 10. He sold them at the Alderney Landing Farmers’ Market around Christmastime.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.