Food Safety Hotline: A Ringing Success

Article excerpt

Food Safety HOTLINE A Ringing Success

The caller obviously had second thoughts about a raw fish dish she had prepared, and, in her words, she was "terribly worried."

". . . I wonder how safe the fish is. It's raw, you know, but I put plenty of lime in it and I marinated it all night in the refrigerator."

The response was thorough:

"Right. The marinade in which you placed the fish coagulates the proteins. The fact that [the marinade] is acid does retard the growth of certain bacteria for, as you say, it's not a cooked product. And no matter how long it sits in the marinade, there are still some surviving bacteria that could only be destroyed by thorough cooking. So, certainly, we want you to be aware that there are risks associated with eating raw or undercooked fish and shellfish.

"How much of a risk it is for you depends on a number of things: the water the fish was taken from, how the product was handled otherwise. For example, if that product had been allowed to sit at room temperature for a number of hours, you'd have quite a potential problem. Certainly, keeping it cold, making sure your hands are clean and [your] utensils are clean will help protect you to a degree. But there are no ironclad guarantees. How badly you might be affected by food poison bacteria would depend on a number of things: your age, your general health . . . . ."

The caller was a Massachusetts woman, and she was calling the food safety hot line, an experimental project conducted last summer by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. (See "A Summer Hot Line for Food Safety Questions" in the June 1988 FDA Consumer.) The experiment, which permitted callers to use a tollfree 800 number, covered the states of Massachusetts, Florida and Illinois and was patterned after USDA's meat and poultry hot line, which has been calming concerned consumers since July 1985.

The food safety hot line drew 60 to 80 calls a day during its operation in June, July and August. Most calls were from the three pilot states, although publicity outside those states resulted in calls from other areas. An item in the Syracuse, N.Y., paper, for example, brought calls from that area, timed as it was just before a power outage that got people to wondering how safe the food remained in their electricity-starved refrigerators and freezers.

Most of the calls--54 percent--were related to FDA concerns. Twenty-two percent were in USDA's domain (i.e., concerned meat and poultry), while 18 percent involved both jurisdictions. The remainder were outside the jurisdiction of either agency. One percent of the inquiries required research and a return call, 90 percent were answered on the spot, and 9 percent were referred elsewhere as they concerned product complaints or questions about adverse reactions to sulfite preservatives and the artificial sweetener aspartame, which FDA is tracking. The hot line experts didn't try to tell people how to prepare foods, unless safety was involved, and they didn't give recipes.

Frequently, the callers gushed about the service. "I've tried everywhere to get this information" was an oft-heard remark. One woman from Massachusetts lauded the service even though she didn't own a phone.

Susan Templin, supervisor of both the meat and poultry and food safety hot lines, says one reason people like the service is because they can see their tax dollars at work. …