Food Safety

Food Safety in the Past

Consumers in the Past

Canadian homemakers used various methods to prepare their food and keep it safe. They had access to reliable information about cooking and cleanliness in the home, thanks to the Women's Institute. This organization was founded in Ontario in 1897, and by 1915 had established branches across Canada.

Courses on domestic science, home economics, food safety and food education were provided at many public schools and colleges for future homemakers. Adelaide Hoodless(the woman who led the movement to have all milk pasteurized) introduced domestic science to school curricula in Canada.

Women's Institute Girls' Club, Wetaskiwin, Alberta, 1928
Courtesy of City of Wetaskiwin Archives

Making Food Last Longer

Pickling and Preserving

People turned cucumbers into pickles by preserving them in vinegar or a brine of salt and water, which was concentrated enough to float an egg. Sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) was another popular way to enjoy the harvest well into winter.


Homemakers made preserves by cooking fruit together with sugar, and storing it as jam or canned fruit using glass or earthenware jars. They could also make jelly by boiling fruit juice with sugar.

When fruit came into season, it was preserved as jam. A copper pot was ideal, because it spread the heat out, rather than allowing it to concentrate in one spot, burning the contents.

Rural families who did a great deal of preserving bought sugar in large sacks. Sugar serves as a preservative when making jams and jellies.

Pickling was a traditional means of preserving food. In many Eastern European homes, 'sauerkraut' was a common food. Shredded cabbage was put in a crock with salt and mashed with the large pestle.

Copper Preserving Kettle, ca. 1900
Artifact no. I02128
Loan: Parks Canada
“British Columbia” Sugar Bag, ca. 1920 (reproduction)
B.C. Sugar Company, Vancouver, British Columbia
Artifact no. I02129
Loan: Parks Canada
Sauerkraut Making Equipment, ca. 1920
Artifact nos. 2004.0087, 2004.0091
Canning and Pressure Cooking

There were two basic ways to can food at home: cooking the food in a saucepan and transferring it to sterilized jars; or cooking the food after placing it in jars. Unfortunately, home canning did not always kill the bacteria associated with botulism, especially in non acid foods such as vegetables, meat, and fish. During the 1950s, the Canadian government promoted pressure cooking as a better way to preserve foods than canning. The high temperatures created under pressure in this cooking method effectively destroyed the bacteria.

Glass companies produced many sizes of canning jars. Before the advent of frozen foods, home canning was the main way to preserve fruits and vegetables for winter and spring enjoyment.

During the 1930s, some families began to use canning machines. When the crank was turned, a bead of metal formed, sealing the lid to the sides of the can. Most families, however, continued to use glass jars.

A length of cleaned pig intestine is tied over the nozzle of the stuffer. A mixture of ground meat and spices is forced into the casing. The sausage skin serves as a barrier to contamination, and the meat has been salted to delay spoilage. The sausages were either cooked and eaten right away, or smoked for longer storage.

By raising the boiling point of water, pressure cookers increased the food's temperature, cooking it more quickly. A safety valve released steam when the pressure became too great.


“Crown” Quart Canning Jars, ca. 1950
Dominion Glass Company, Montreal,Quebec; Hamilton and Wallaceburg, Ontario; Redcliff, Alberta
Artifact no. 2001.0139
Canning Machine, ca. 1930
La Fonderie de L'Islet Ltée, L'Islet, Quebec
Artifact no. 1979.0720
Homemade Sausage Stuffer, ca. 1890
Artifact no. 1986.0840
"Presto Cooker" Pressure Cooker, ca. 1950
National Pressure Cooker Co., Wallaceburg, Ontario
Artifact no. 1988.0413
Curing Meat

People often dried and smoked meat and fish over a fire. Salting raw meat extends the length of time it can be stored safely. Either dry salt, or wet salt in brine, effectively inhibits the growth of certain harmful bacteria.

Moose meat on a drying frame, Albany River, Ontario, 1959
Archives of Ontario C 330-9-0-0-48

Producers in the Past

Foods were packaged in containers which were impervious to contamination: food-grade glass, ceramic, and metal. Canning factories used an industrial pressure cooker or 'autoclave' for processing fruits such as apples.

Grocers and other food retailers kept their merchandise clean and separated. Butchers used sawdust on the floor to enable the surface removal of contaminated material from boots.

Slicing peaches for freezing in pint cartons, 1945
Canada Agriculture and Food Museum: Agriculture Canada Collection
Various cartons for frozen foods, 1947
Canada Agriculture and Food Museum: Agriculture Canada Collection
Workers peeling apples for processing in an autoclave at a Kentville, Nova Scotia canning factory, 1935
Canada Agriculture and Food Museum: Agriculture Canada Collection
Taste-testing of dried vegetables, 1942
Canada Agriculture and Food Museum: Agriculture Canada Collection
Freezing and Drying

During the 1930s and 1940s, scientists at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa tested different ways of packaging frozen fruit and of dehydrating vegetables, while retaining their flavour. Sulphur was added to fruit to stop the growth of mold. Vegetables were blanched in hot water or steam. Once dry, the food was stored in airtight containers, usually cans, to protect it from insects.

Comparison of cabbage in fresh, loose, dried or compressed forms, 1942
Canada Agriculture and Food Museum: Agriculture Canada Collection

Foods can spoil if exposed to sunlight, so some fragile items were put in containers made of amber coloured glass. The idea was never very popular for fruit or milk.

Amber Milk Bottle, ca. 1910
Artifact no. 1975.0791

Metal packaging was a boon to food producers. It was less fragile than glass, and more hygienic than wood. The top, bottom and sides of this tin, however, are joined together with lead solder.

“Lower Canada Maple Syrup” Tin, ca. 1900
J.S. Mitchell and Co., Sherbrooke, Quebec
Artifact no. 2001.0251
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