Tips on How to Keep Pumpkins Safe to Eat this Fall

It might be Halloween, but the pumpkin you serve shouldn’t be scary. Traditionally, Halloween kicks off the “everything pumpkin” season. The popular gourd can be made into rolls, pies, latte, butter, bread, muffins, jellies and various processed products.

When prepared correctly, pumpkins are relatively healthy and incredibly delicious. However, it’s important to know how to keep the pumpkins away from pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and toxin-producing Escherichia coli as these micro-organisms could make a person very sick.

Pumpkins (scientific name: Cucurbita maxima) are round, smooth, rib-skinned squashes with yellow to deep-orange color flesh and white edible seeds. Typical product characteristics, critical to food safety and quality, may be summarized as follows:

 

Estimated Sugar Content

(grams/100g of product)

 

 

5g /100g of Pumpkin

 

pH

 

 

4.90 – 5.50

 

Water activity (aw)

 

> 0.98

 

 

Storage Conditions

 

Whole pumpkin: 30-90 days in a cool, dry and dark place (70° F -75° F)

Sliced/packed:  2-5 days under refrigeration (32° F – 40° F)

 

(The product characteristics may differ between and within the pumpkin varieties)

Owing largely to the nature of the squash, if cut pumpkin is not processed, packed, or stored properly, it can provide the right environment for harmful bacteria to survive, grow, and spread. Therefore, during the cutting and packing of pumpkins, the following food safety tips are essential:

  1. Select good quality pumpkins – Reject over-ripe raw pumpkins that have big patches of broken, diseased, moldy, spotty, or pale skin. A good pumpkin has unblemished, intact, and bright-orange colored skin.
  2. Wash adequately before cutting – Wash the pumpkin under running warm water (with clean hands) to remove soil and to significantly reduce the microbial load on the skin. Wash every surface area of the pumpkin for 2-3 minutes. The crease lines and the areas around the stalk must be thoroughly cleaned as these spots potentially harbor a lot of soil and bacteria.
  3. Ensure tools, surfaces, and equipment used are adequately cleaned and sanitized – To avoid any cross-contamination from pathogens and foreign material, clean and appropriately sanitize the equipment, work surfaces, knives, and scoops. This step should be done well in advance of processing the pumpkin.
  4. Work in a sanitary environment – Ensure all food contact and non-food contact surfaces and areas are in good and sanitary condition, as we would not want environmental contaminants to negatively affect the safety of the product. Look out for any possible hazards that could be a food safety concern. This step is also done well before any processing of pumpkin begins.
  5. Follow good personal hygiene practices – If you’re making pumpkin products at home, you should wash your hands before starting and after cleaning the pumpkin. If you have long hair, be sure to tie it back before setting foot into the kitchen. In a food processing plant, those who handle the pumpkin must follow good manufacturing practices at all times. They must wear a hairnet, wash their hands properly, put on clean work garments, a pair of gloves and arm guards before starting their work. This prevents the spread of germs during the actual processing operation.
  6. Discard the waste properly to avoid unhygienic condition – Pumpkins should have the top with the stock removed first. Then, the pumpkin can be sliced into the desired sizes and shapes, from thin slices to thick cubes. Seeds can be laid out to dry, and the inedible middle portion of the pumpkin should be disposed of immediately.
  7. Pack and label the product – Shrink-wrap or heat-seal the exposed product using clear, clean, and dust-free polythene film. The product should be labeled by name, production date and lot number, if required for tracing the food item.
  8. Refrigerate the processed product during storage or transport – Refrigerate the product at 32° F – 40° F, within 2 hours of processing, to ensure the safety and quality of the packed product. During transportation, ensure that the juices do not leak from the package, as this may create a breeding ground for germs to grow and spread.
  9. Clean the equipment, surfaces, and area thoroughly after the processing operation – Ensure that the processing area, equipment, and tools are cleaned and appropriately sanitized within 4 hours (or preferably less) of production, to maintain the sanitation and hygiene of the preparation area. Be sure to use the correct type of scrubbing brush for the best cleaning results. The cut pumpkin can then be used to make other delicious food products. Make sure to use the refrigerated pumpkin within a few days for a better-quality product.

Following good food safety practices goes a long way in keeping food safe, and can prevent people from getting serious illnesses.

Come October 31, have a food-safe Halloween!