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Homemade goods — and gifts — seem to be on the rise, thanks to a sluggish economy and an overall desire to get back in touch with our food.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/13/2010 6:03:12 PM ET 2010-12-13T23:03:12

As holiday food gifts go, you could say this one didn’t quite cut the mustard.

“Four years ago, my neighbor came to my door with a jar of mustard she made,” says Laura Shumaker, a 55-year-old advocate for families with autistic children from Lafayette, Calif. “Then she tells me, ‘Oh my God, we’ve been so sick at our house. We’ve all had the stomach flu.’”

Worried about flu germs — or worse — Shumaker didn’t even open the jar.

“It went right into the trash — clunk!” she says. “And then I had to go wash my hands. I’m just not a big lover of homemade goods unless I really know and trust the person.”

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Caring … and scaring
Homemade goods — and gifts — seem to be on the rise, thanks to a sluggish economy and an overall desire to get back in touch with our food. According to Jarden Home Brands, makers of Ball and Kerr jars, sales of canning products like glass jars and pectin have increased 28 percent over the last year and were up 50 percent between 2008 and 2009. Extension programs and websites like the National Center for Home Food Preservation have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of requests for canning advice — especially from first-timers.

But while jars of homemade preserves or plates of home-baked cookies are definitely from the heart, they can sometimes leave recipients with a case of heartburn, heebie jeebies — or worse. Last year, three people were hospitalized with foodborne botulism after eating improperly home canned green beans. Home canned meat — such as sausage and fermented beaver tail (an Alaska specialty) — have also sent people to the ER.

Salmon, meat, chilis, soups, and stews can definitely be tricky, especially for the neophyte canner, says Elizabeth Andress, extension food safety specialist and project director of the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Ditto for low-acid vegetables like green beans and carrots, vegetable salsas, chocolate sauces and pestos.

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Botulinum spores often found on fresh food surfaces are harmless when exposed to air. Canning, though, produces a low oxygen environment in which these spores can germinate and produce the toxin that causes botulism. Foods that are high in acid like fruits, tomatoes with added lemon juice or citric acid and pickled products with specific amounts of vinegar can be safely canned in a boiling water canner because spores will not germinate in an acid environment. Low acid veggies and meats must be canned in a pressure canner to be safe. 

“If you don’t know what you’re doing and you can certain kinds of foods improperly, it can lead to foodborne illness and possibly botulism,” says Andress.

Luckily, botulism cases are relatively rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 18 cases and one death for 2008, the latest year with statistics available.

But Andress says she still worries about it, especially since newbie canners often try to get creative.

“Pumpkin is a low acid vegetable and we know it can cause botulism if not canned properly,” she says. “But people like to try something different, like pumpkin butter, especially this time of year. We don’t know how to tell you how to do that safely at home. But I know people still experiment and try it anyway.”

'Canning is a science, not an art'
Zena Edwards, food safety and nutrition faculty for Washington State University Extension, says her own grandfather used to be one of those experimenters.

“When he retired, he started gardening and canning and he liked to make dilly beans,” she says. “But he’d modify the recipe, reducing the salt or messing around with the acid, all the things you’re not supposed to do. Then he’d put them out on the Thanksgiving or Christmas table. My mom and I would always avoid them.”

Edwards’ grandfather eventually went through a master canning class where he learned that “canning is a science, not an art.”

But Andress say many newbie canners still try to do their own thing.

“You have to use a tested recipe,” she says. “But people will find something on the Internet or make up a canning process. Many times, I’ll look at personal websites and see things that can be very unsafe. People don’t quite understand that they might do it once and ‘get away with it’ but they could try it a month later and get sick — or make someone else sick.”

Improper home canning isn’t the only way to give a little something extra with that holiday food gift, though. Edwards says forgetting to wash your hands when preparing foods is another way people can get sick.

“Hair in food is a big yuck factor but it’s not a high risk thing,” she says. “But if people aren’t washing their hands, that can be a huge risk for food borne illness.”

Santa’s secret ingredient
Of course, hair in your holiday food gift is no picnic, either.

“One year, a woman at work gave everybody homemade Christmas cookies that she put into those little white Chinese cartons,” says Jennifer Juergens, a 49-year-old public relations maven from Manhattan. “I’m eating them and passing them out to others and then I look down and see all these hairs coating the bottom of the carton. Like dozens of long gray cat hairs.”

Apparently, the woman owned a number of cats who “helped” with the baking.

“I’m sure they were walking all over the counter as she was making them,” says Juergens. “I’m sure they were probably baked into the cookies, too. Thinking about it still makes me gag.”

Kristy Short from Ypsilanti, Mich., found something even worse in her holiday goodie-bag.

“A woman I worked with once made cookie bags for everyone at Christmas,” says the 32-year-old English professor and marketing expert. “It was frightening enough receiving anything baked by this woman; her office was famous for emitting odors of rotting lunch meat. Nonetheless, I tried a cookie.”

Unfortunately, the raisin she bit into into turned out to be a used Band-Aid.

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“If that’s not a food gift from hell, I don’t know what is,” she says.

When in doubt, toss it out
What should you do if you receive a questionable holiday food gift?

“The bottom line with food is safety,” says Edwards of WSU Extension. “We tell people if you’re in doubt about the safety of a food, you need to throw it out. Although that can be challenging for people. They don’t want to waste food; they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.”

Edwards say jams, jellies or any canned food with mold on it should be tossed (despite what grandma used to say). Ditto for jars that aren’t sealed, jars containing food that’s sticking up out of the liquid or jars containing discolored food. While there are no warning signs for botulism, she says a few polite questions about the canning process — or the recipe — can be helpful.

“If you ask where they got the recipe and they tell you the Ball canning book or the USDA site, that’s pretty reliable,” she says. “But if they say ‘Oh, it’s something we came up with’ or ‘Well, it originally came from this place, but we modified it,’ then it’s safer to toss it.”

As for letting someone know they’ve given you cat-hair cookies, a petrified fruitcake or bitter bottle of homemade wine, don't go there, advises Jodi R. R. Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Mass.

“Just thank the giver for thinking of you during the holidays,” she says. “Although if you receive homemade jam with glass shards in it, you should share this information with the jam-maker to prevent another recipient from bodily harm.”

One more tip. If you mail a home-made food gift, be sure to let the recipient know.

“One year, a relative sent us a tin of cinnamon yeast rolls without telling us it was food,” says Kate Black, a 32-year-old artist from Brooklyn, who left the box under the tree for two weeks.

“When we opened it on Christmas morning, it was this liquid sludge of vaguely bread-shaped items,” she says. “They’d liquefied and fermented in the tin.”

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