Safety is a word that has many interpretations, it conveys a spectrum of the value of risk involved in an activity. For instance a mountaineer dangling in a sleeping bag from the face of a cliff and a child walking in a crosswalk are both safe, but one is relatively safer than the other. Safety is a relative thing. On a scale of one to ten, home fermented foods are a 9 on the scale of safety, where foods are concerned.
I was reading this morning a report of a home-fermenter that was used to selling wholesome and ‘safe’ sauerkraut at the local farmer’s market. She was forced to quit by local and state government because she could not afford to prove that her product was ‘safe’. The legal definition of safe as far as prepare foods that are sold to the public requires proof, not just words.
I don’t want to discuss the merits of keeping cottage-industry foods out of the reach of a hungry public. I want to discuss whether or not these foods are safe.
We all, over the years, have gotten the impression that we are swimming in a world of dangerous pathogens. We are. Fear has created a booming business in sanitary hand cleaners, they are even at the door of the grocery store so you can wipe off the handle of that nasty shopping cart, that was just touched by the disgusting human right before you. But how safe are you in this dangerous world of germs?
There once was a time when soap did not exist. Not that many years ago people did not even realize bacteria existed. Food borne illness was mysterious, yet people could eat foods prepared like they were trained to fix it and most people did not fall ill. Food was safe, even though we didn’t know exactly how we were keeping it safe.
New efforts to sterilize and sanitize everything are extra expense, but they don’t make any of us any safer. The periodic meat and vegetable recalls and panics are necessary, since modern farming methods are more dangerous from a pathogen standpoint. Dangerous bacteria are flourishing in the unnatural environment of California dairy farms, which are just across the fence from California vegetable farms. It is known to be safer to eat local foods. However, Safety is a relative thing.
People are covered and infected with ten times more bacteria than there are human cells in them. Hand sanitizer cannot do anything to protect you from them and they don’t need to, either. Only a very small percentage of bacteria are unsafe varieties. Even if you encounter a bad one if you contain enough good bacteria they will help to defend you from the bad, as they all compete for food and space in and on you.
If you make sauerkraut or any other ferment at home you are safe doing so. It is very difficult to make a dangerous ferment. Botulism, for instance, can only become toxic in a closed, oxygen free environment, like in an improperly cooked canned food. Your home ferments are going to contain plenty of acid, which is what keeps the foods from spoiling, it is why people ever bothered to ferment foods. Fermenting is how people kept foods from harvest to harvest, even before they knew they could store foods in salt. Fermenting is as old as drying to preserve foods. You should not fear your own foods. It is very difficult to produce a dangerous vegetable.
So, the answer to my question above is you are very safe in this dangerous world of germs. Most of them are good. If you prepare your fermented foods the way it has been done for ten thousand years of human history, if you use fresh vegetables that are in decent shape, if you use clean dry tools and wash your hands and vegetables, if you are just reasonably careful…you will be perfectly safe. Don’t let the chemical industry scare you out of eating real food. Don’t let the food industry fool you into thinking only factory foods are ‘safe’. Nothing could be further from the truth.