The year is 1985. The top TV program was “Dynasty” followed closely by “Dallas.” Microwave popcorn had just been introduced. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline opened its phone lines July 1, beginning 28 years of distinguished food safety service.
The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is a toll-free telephone service staffed by food safety experts. Since 1985, the staff has answered almost three million calls and has expanded its technical services with the times. What’s happened at the Hotline since 1985? Here are a few milestones—both in the world and at USDA.
1995. The average cost of a gallon of gasoline was $1.09. With the Internet just opened for public use, the Hotline began answering questions via email addressed to MPHotline@fsis.usda.gov. Today, the staff answers almost 6,000 emails yearly.
2002. The Winter Olympics were held in Salt Lake City. Three Mexican athletes rocketed down the bobsleigh run but didn’t medal. The toll-free Hotline extended its service to Spanish-speakers. Bilingual food safety specialists spoke to nearly 200 callers last year, answered 213 emails, and translated hundreds of food safety publications in Spanish forthe “En Español” version of FSIS’ website.
2004. NASA’s two exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, land on Mars. The Hotline debuted “Ask Karen,” the agency’s interactive 24/7 food safety service, on the FSIS website. Ask Karen is a virtual food safety representative backed by the Food Safety Education’s Hotline Staff that offers advice about properly handling, storing, and preparing food to prevent illness, under all kinds of environments. The database of more than 1,500 questions and answers was created and is maintained by the food safety experts at the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline.
2009. “Yakety Yak, Don’t Talk Back,” a song recorded by the Coasters, is half a century old. The Hotline staff began to “talk back” through a live chat service online. This past year, “Karen” answered around 3,000 live chats and provided over one million answers in English and Spanish. A little more than halfway through 2013, over 2,000 chats have already been answered—a 45 percent increase over the total number of chats held in 2009.
2010. Thirty-three miners near Copiapó, Chile, trapped 700 meters underground in a mining accident in San José Mine, are rescued after surviving for a record 69 days. The Ask Karen database becomes available in Spanish. During the past 12 months, more than 400,000 answers were viewed, a 282% increase from the previous year.
2011. In the most watched television program in US history, 111 million viewers saw the Green Bay Packers defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. FSIS created a mobile version of the Ask Karen site to make the information more portable. The app is now downloadable from the Android and iTunes app stores. In mobile format, people can take "Karen" with them to the grocery store, barbecue grill, farmers market, and into the kitchen, even to the Superbowl! In the first year that the app was available, traffic to Ask Karen increased 15 fold.
Additionally, Ask Karen and Mobile Ask Karen have a nearly 99 percent self-service rate, meaning that nearly all users are able to find the answers to their questions without wasting a second.
If you need the answer to a food safety question, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline can get it to you: toll free over the phone at 888-674-6854, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern time on weekdays year round (plus Thanksgiving from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.); on the Internet (AskKaren.gov and in Spanish PregunteleaKaren.gov); via email MPHotline@fsis.usda.gov); or via your portable electronic device (m.askkaren.gov).
Whether it’s about raw cookie dough only being a problem for kids or microwaves killing the germs, you hear a lot of things about food safety that are just a little wrong – but a little wrong that can make you sick. However, just in time for September’s National Food Safety Education Month, the non-profit Partnership for Food Safety Education, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is launching its annual Food Safety Mythbusters, a campaign to correct common misconceptions about food safety.
For 2013, the myths to be busted are:
MYTH: Only kids eat raw cookie dough and cake batter. If we just keep kids away from these raw products when adults are baking, there won’t be a problem!
FACT: Just a lick can make you sick!
No one of any age should eat raw cookie dough or cake batter because it could contain germs that cause illness. So don’t do it! Whether it’s pre-packaged or homemade, the heat from baking is required to kill germs that might be in the raw ingredients. The finished, baked, product is far safer - and tastes even better! And remember, kids who eat raw cookie dough and cake batter are at greater risk of getting food poisoning than most adults are.
MYTH: When kids cook it is usually “heat and eat” snacks and foods in the microwave. They don’t have to worry about food safety – the microwaves kill the germs!
FACT: Microwaves aren’t magic!
It’s the heat the microwaves generate that kills the germs! Food cooked in a microwave needs to be heated to a safe internal temperature. Microwaves often heat food unevenly, leaving cold spots in food where germs can survive. Kids can use microwaves properly by carefully following package instructions. Even simple “heat and eat” snacks come with instructions that need to be followed to ensure a safe product. Use a food thermometer if the instructions tell you to!
MYTH: When kids wash their hands, just putting their hands under running water is enough to get the germs off.
FACT: Rubbing hands with water and soap is the best way to go!
Water is just part of what you need for clean hands! Washing hands properly is a great way to reduce the risk of food poisoning. Here’s how:
Wet your hands with clean, running water and apply soap. Rub them together to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of hands, between fingers, and under nails. Continue rubbing for at least 20 seconds. Sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice to time yourself! Rinse hands well under running water. Dry your hands using a clean towel, paper towel, or an air dryer.
MYTH: My kids only eat pre-packaged fruits and veggies for snacks because those snacks don’t need to be washed before they eat them.
FACT: Read your way to food safety!
Giving your kids healthy snacks is a big plus for them! But just because produce is wrapped, it doesn’t always mean it’s ready to eat as is. Read the label of your product to make sure it says: “ready-to-eat,” “washed,” or “triple washed.” If it does, you’re good to go! If it doesn’t, wash your hands and then rinse the fruits or vegetables under running tap water. Scrub firm items, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush. Dry with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce germs that may be present.
WATCH a video on Safe Handling of Raw Produce and Fresh-Squeezed Fruit and Vegetable Juices
It’s tailgate season, are you ready for the kick off? Planning is the key to keeping your food safe during a tailgate so get your gear ready now. Do you have enough coolers, and all the tools you need to cook? In addition to a grill and fuel for cooking make sure you don’t forget your most valuable player, the food thermometer. It’s the only way you can be sure your meat or poultry has reached a safe temperature.
Don’t sideline your guest, stay in the Food Safety Zone
- Bring water for cleaning if none will be available at the site. Pack clean, wet, disposable cloths or moist towelettes and paper towels for cleaning hands and surfaces.
- Carry cold perishable food like raw hamburger patties, sausages, and chicken in an insulated cooler packed with several inches of ice, frozen gel packs, or containers of ice.
- Be sure raw meat and poultry are wrapped securely to prevent their juices from cross-contaminating ready-to-eat food. If possible, store these foods near the bottom of the cooler, so that juices don't contaminate other foods in the cooler.
- If you can't keep hot food hot during the drive to your tailgate, plan and chill the food in the refrigerator before packing it in a cooler. Reheat the food to 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
- If bringing hot take-out food, eat it within 2 hours of purchase (1 hour if the temperature is above 90 °F).
Know your opponent by defending against bacteria.
Use a food thermometer! Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often browns very fast on the outside. Use a food thermometer to be sure the food has reached a safe minimum internal temperature. Using a food thermometer not only keeps your guests safe from harmful food bacteria, but it also helps you to avoid overcooking, giving you safe and flavorful meat. You can find a chart listing the temperatures by visiting Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures on the FoodSafety.gov website.
Listen to USDA’s podcast for more information to help you with your tailgate game plan
If you have any questions about tailgating food safety, feel free to contact us at the Hotline (1-888-674-6854 toll-free) or online at AskKaren.gov.