By Julie Schwartz, Public Affairs Specialist, U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service
Millions of Americans will feast with family and friends in the next few weeks to celebrate winter holidays and the start of a new year. Those cooking for this year’s family gathering should be aware that foodborne illness is a serious public health issue, and that foodborne bacteria sickens about 48 million Americans (1 in 6) every year.
Just ask Marianne Gravely – former Nutritionist for the Virginia Beach Department of Health and the Norfolk Public Health Department, and current Food Safety Specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). FSIS is a public health regulatory agency that works to ensure meat, poultry, and processed eggs products are safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled.
For the last 28 years, Marianne has answered questions on the FSIS Meat and Poultry Hotline; a consumer-oriented program intended to help prevent foodborne illness by answering questions about the safe storage, handling, and preparation of meat, poultry, and egg products.
“When people are cooking for large events, they often have food safety questions that they aren’t sure how to answer,” says Marianne. “For example, should you wash raw meat and poultry before cooking? Or, since it’s so chilly outside, can food be left on a porch to defrost?”
The Hotline has answered over two million calls as part of USDA’s consumer food safety education efforts, and remains one of the rare services in which a live person, like Marianne, answers caller-specific questions one-on-one.
Marianne believes that the most important thing she tells people is “to follow the four steps to handling food safely: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.”
This year, don’t follow a recipe for disaster. Instead, ask the folks behind the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline your food safety questions. They’re available to chat online or on the phone, and in either in English or Spanish on weekdays year-round.
In addition, check out AskKaren – the FSIS automated system containing answers to thousands of common Hotline questions. Want to know how long you can safely keep meat in the refrigerator? Or how long it takes to boil an egg? Just ask Karen, your guide to expert knowledge on handling and storing food safely and preventing food poisoning. Live chat is also available during specified weekday hours.
 USDA does not recommend washing raw meat and poultry before cooking. Bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread around your kitchen up to three feet away. Cooking (baking, broiling, boiling, frying and grilling) to the right temperature kills the bacteria, so washing meat and poultry is not necessary.
 Storing food outside isn’t food safe for two reasons: (1) animals and (2) temperature variation. Animals both wild and domesticated can get into food stored outside, consuming it or contaminating it. Just like your car gets warm in the summer, a plastic food storage container in the sun can heat up into the danger zone (above 40 °F). The best way to keep that extra Thanksgiving food at a safe temperature (below 40 °F) is in a cooler with ice.