The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Hotline has answered more than 3 million calls in the three decades the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has been running it. The Hotline — which consumers can call at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET on weekdays — celebrated its 30th anniversary this month. “The goal of M&P Hotline is to allow quick access for the public to information on the prevention of foodborne illness,” says Tina Hanes, food safety technical information specialist and the Hotline’s manager. Most of what the Hotline does is answer questions from consumers, but callers can also listen to recorded messages for information about recalls. Staff members also take complaints about a meat or poultry product related to illness, foreign objects and mislabeling and forward the complaint to the USDA’s investigating office. Some of the top questions have to do with how long you can keep a certain food in the refrigerator or freezer, how to keep food safe when there’s a power outage, the safe internal temperatures for cooking meats and poultry, how to thaw something quickly, and which foods have been recalled. Calls to the Hotline double in November — mostly because of questions about buying, storing, preparing and cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. The service is even open on Thanksgiving Day. “When people ask how they can thaw things fast, we get a lot of unusual questions about that,” Hanes said during a presentation at the 2014 Consumer Food Safety Education Conference this past December. In case you’re wondering, toilets, bathtubs and washing machines are not safe brining or thawing vessels. “People think this stuff is safe and they can improvise,” Hanes said. “This is where they make mistakes and get sick, and that’s why we’re here.” About 80 percent of callers are consumers in the home, and the Hotline gets calls from all 50 states, Washington D.C., U.S. territories and occasionally from Canada. The most calls come in from California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and New Jersey. The Hotline is also a food safety resource for various radio, TV and online sites. Staff members have done interviews with, or answer food safety questions for, outlets such as USA Today, the Food Network, Real Simple magazine, the Weather Channel and local news stations. When it started in 1985, the Hotline was just a phone service, but things have evolved since then. In 1995, the staff started answering questions via emails. Now they answer about 6,000 questions via email each year. In 2002, they added bilingual services so that Spanish speakers can call or chat with staff and provide food safety fact sheets in Spanish. In 2004, the Hotline started its online chat service called Ask Karen, which includes a database of commonly asked food safety questions. Pregúntele a Karen started in 2010, and USDA launched the Ask Karen mobile app the following year. Last year, Ask Karen fielded more than 1 million questions in 3,000 live chats. More recently, the Hotline has been embracing social media and hosting Twitter and Facebook chats. Despite these new technologies, however, the Hotline still gets approximately 60,000 calls to its toll-free number every year.
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