Expert: Be more concerned about food safety than Y2KWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Concerns about social and economic disruptions that might occur if computers crash at midnight on the last day of this year have prompted some people to investigate canning their own food.
But Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service food safety specialists say food preserved at home by inexperienced canners may be more of a threat than any Y2K problem.
"Some people want to preserve their own food because they think that all of the supply and food delivery systems will fail at 12:01 a.m. on New Year's Day," Purdue Extension foods and nutrition specialist Bill Evers said. "We feel that the chance of food poisoning from home-preserved food is greater than the very, very unlikely chance of a collapse of the food delivery system.
"If you are a first-time canner, be more concerned about potential food-safety hazards than Y2K."
He notes that the Clostridium botulinum bacterium, which can cause paralyzing effects in humans, is the biggest concern -- especially for the first-time canner who might make a big mistake that could contaminate the food.
"In low-acid foods, essentially all non-fruits, the botulinum organism can grow and have a great time if it is not eliminated in the canning process," Evers said. "Canning requires pressure cooking with the proper canner at 10 pounds pressure to kill the organism and make food safe."
He points out that in addition to the danger of botulism, any food that is improperly handled is subject to growth of other food poisoning bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, all of which can cause serious sickness or death.
April Mason, assistant director of the Extension Service, said Extension educators in county offices are receiving telephone calls from people wanting to preserve and store food because of the Y2K issue. Mason is co-author of one of Purdue Extension's more popular publications on disaster preparedness, CFS-119 "Keeping Food Safe During Emergencies."
That and similar publications on canning and food safety are available from Purdue Extension county offices. You can also order them toll-free at (888) EXT-INFO (398-4636).
Canning can be a great hobby for the person who is into it for the long run, but Evers said people don't need to spend time and money to can their own foods for Y2K.
First, Evers, who has dealt with Y2K in developing computer data bases and CD-ROMs for Extension education, said he thinks the possibility of food shortages because of Y2K is oversold as a catastrophe. "Companies are testing their equipment to prevent the worst from happening," he said. "In addition, a lot of the food-delivery system is not related to the switching of a date. Trucks will run, and shelves will be stocked."
Evers also pointed out that some systems will resolve the date change problem ahead of time. "Some planning and ordering systems have to work ahead of the current date, so they will encounter the date switch before the end of the year."
Finally, he said he doesn't believe that the food industry would take such a huge profit risk by ignoring the problems associated with the date change. "By and large, industry will be prepared for Y2K," Evers said. "There may be some inconveniences, but I don't see how we can have major disasters in the food delivery system."
One problem could occur, though. "That's if people panic and go out and buy everything off the shelf at the end of the year," Evers said. "It is the same sort of unnecessary panic people demonstrate when they go overboard just before a storm."
He recommended common sense planning for those who are concerned, such as laying in a few days supply of some dried foods. "If a person wants to, he or she could keep some dried milk, cereal, bread and a few containers of water."
Some people have called and asked how to can water. "They seem to think they have to do something special to keep water in containers," Evers said. "But all they need to do is have a clean container." He said he thinks the confusion comes from the need to treat water after a disaster, such as a flood, where the water source is contaminated.
In the end, Evers said he thinks that once people go to the expense of buying a pressure canner and all the tools for canning and then find out how much work canning can be, the expensive equipment will end up in the attic like an unwanted Christmas gift.
Sources: Bill Evers, (765) 494-8546; firstname.lastname@example.org
April Mason, (765) 494-8252; email@example.com
Writer: Steve Cain, (765) 494-8410; firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, email@example.com