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USDA Food Safety Hotline Posts Milestones for 28 Years

scientists testing meat for food safety  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 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 ( and in Spanish; via email; or via your portable electronic device (

Posted in: MediaTagged: Ask Karen | Hotline | History | Anniversary