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US Food Safety Hotline Works to Prevent Food-Borne Illness

An outdoor cookout
An outdoor cookout

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Chris Simkins

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about one in six Americans get sick from food poisoning every year and about 3,000 of them die.  Health officials say those numbers usually rise during this time of year as more Americans take advantage of warm weather by cooking and eating outdoors.  We have more on efforts to improve food safety and how a group of people near Washington, D.C. are working to educate consumers against food-borne illness.

Millions of Americans are cooking outdoors as the summer ushers in picnics, barbecues and food festivals.  But as sunshine and warm weather attract many people to eat outside, the chances of getting food poisoning grow.  Andrea Darlas got Salmonella poisoning after eating tainted Hummus at a food festival.

"I was dehydrated - had high fever and chills," said Darlas.

Jane Bradbury got sick too.

"I thought it was the flu.  I had aches and pains," said Bradbury.

These women are not alone, millions of Americans are stricken with serious food-borne illness each year.  More than half of all Americans say they are are cooking outdoors year round.  Now health officials are intensifying efforts to educate consumers and food makers about preparation and handling food.

"Good morning, Meat and Poultry Hotline, may I help you," said a U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline worker.

Workers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline receive about 70,000 telephone calls a year from people who have food safety questions.

"I am going to be going to a cookout this coming weekend and I am supposed to be bringing the raw hamburgers [meat]," said a caller. "So I am a little nervous traveling with hamburgers.  So I just wanted to get some advice on how I could do it safely."

The Hotline started in 1985. and is staffed by food safety specialists like Tina Hanes.

"This time of year we are getting grilling-type questions or questions from people who are asking about picnics and traveling with food," said Hanes.

Workers at the hotline are a first line of defense in protecting consumers against food-borne illness.

"I was just wondering. Can you reuse marinade that you have used on raw chicken on cooked meat," aske a caller.

"You can reuse it as long as you do one important thing," answered a hotline worker. "That is to cook it off, you have to boil it first."

The Meat and Poultry Hotline has expanded programs to include Spanish language services.  It also allows consumers to submit questions through e-mail, live chats and get information on social media sites like Twitter.  Kathy Bernard is project coordinator for the Meat and Poultry Hotline.

"We teach consumers everyday, one to one, about how to handle food safely and to prevent food-borne illness," said Bernard. "In addition we also take calls that are related to complaints about food products that has lead to foods being recalled and we think that has probably saved lives."

Dr. Robynne Chutkan is a Gastroenterologist at Georgetown Hospital in Washington, who says people can reduce their risk of getting food poisoning by taking some simple steps.

"One of the most important things is to make sure your meat is adequately cooked," said Dr. Chutkan. "I do not recommend that anybody be having a rare hamburger when they are cooking out in the summer.  If you are cooking eggs, we have seen a lot of salmonella in the United States, you want to make sure the yokes are firm.  Raw eggs in [liquid] shakes and things like that are defiantly not a good idea. "

U.S. health officials say investing in prevention programs to educate consumers is one of the best ways to reduce food-borne illness, making cooking and eating outdoors not only fun, but safe.

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