Jack-o’-lanterns are not food

122405540We grew pumpkins for cooking in our garden this year, and we plan to carve a few as small jack-o’-lanterns. If I spray the interior of the pumpkins with bleach and use an electric candle, can I still use them for cooking?

It’s not a good idea. Generally, perishable food — which is what your pumpkins will be once you carve them — shouldn’t be left at room temperature for more than two hours.

And actually, “room temperature” is not quite accurate. Not to use a scary term or anything, but you want perishable food in the “danger zone” of 40 degrees to 140 degrees F for no longer than two hours. After that amount of time, any cells of bacteria lurking around have too much of an opportunity to multiply to illness-causing levels.

It’s possible — unlikely, but possible — that you might carve the pumpkins in advance, store them in the refrigerator until it’s time for trick-or-treating, and then chill them again immediately afterward. (This assumes your Beggars Night is just two hours long.) In this case, it would probably be possible to use the pumpkins for cooking. At least, it would satisfy the two-hour rule. But the fact that you say you want to use bleach on the pumpkins indicates that you want to carve them and let them sit out for a while, maybe even a day or two. If you decide to eat the pumpkins after that amount of time, no preservative, not bleach or anything else, will protect you from the kinds of ghouls that could creep into your gut as a result. Besides, although it is great for hard surfaces like countertops, bleach does not disinfect foods. Moreover, bleach is not a food. You shouldn’t eat food treated with household bleach.

You’ll probably get a lot more enjoyment from your fall festivities if you just go out and buy a pumpkin made for carving. Good varieties of “eating” pumpkins have thicker, denser flesh, which makes them more difficult to carve anyway.

Another food safety guideline for the season: Make sure any apple cider you buy is pasteurized. Most of it is these days, but that wasn’t always the case. Until the 1990s, apple cider’s high acidity was thought to protect it from most contaminants. But then there were several outbreaks traced to cider contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and the parasiteCryptosporidium, and regulations changed.

Be careful. In Ohio, cider that’s packaged and sold directly to the consumer from the premises where it’s made isn’t necessarily pasteurized. If not, it will have a warning label — pay heed.

To be safe, be sure cider is pasteurized

We’re having a birthday party for our 4-year-old next month. My husband wants to serve apple cider, but I remember a few years ago there was a safety concern about cider. Is it OK now?

Almost all cider and juice is now pasteurized or otherwise treated to reduce any risks. But read the label to be certain, especially because you’ll be serving the product to children. Children, the elderly and people who are otherwise ill or have weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to foodborne illness.

Until the 1990s, experts generally believed that apple cider’s high acidity would protect it from most contaminants. But after two foodborne illness outbreaks linked to untreated apple cider and apple juice in 1996 — one of which resulted in a fatality — the Food and Drug Administration stepped in.

Now, processors must pasteurize or otherwise treat fruit and vegetable juice to make sure it achieves a “5-log” reduction in pathogens. That means the process must reduce the number of microorganisms 100,000-fold, or a 99.999 percent reduction. That’s the same level required for objects such as food equipment and utensils to be officially “sanitized.”

On the label, look for the word “pasteurized” or for a description of another type of treatment, or for a warning statement that the cider hasn’t been treated.

Checking the label is a simple but important step, because there are circumstances when you might encounter cider or juice that hasn’t been treated. Cider and juice that is made on-site — whether at a grocery store, a health-food store, a juice bar, a farm market, an apple orchard or anywhere, really — and then sold directly to consumers does not have to be treated. But those packages do need to carry a warning label.

If an outlet offers single servings of cider or juice, inquire if it’s been treated. Since the product doesn’t have a package with a label, you can’t know for sure unless you ask.

If you have a home juicing machine, you should also follow a few precautions. Before you begin, rinse produce well under running water, scrubbing rinds with a brush. Also, make sure cutting boards, counter tops, utensils and the juicer itself are clean before you start.

Food safety experts recommend drinking homemade juice immediately. If you’re going to store it, you might consider heating it to a boil before refrigerating just to be certain any pathogens don’t have a chance to multiply to dangerous levels before you have a chance to consume the juice.