WASHINGTON — Sometimes the toughest questions have the easiest answers. The trick is knowing where to find them. According to Ann Collins Chadwick, consumer adviser for the U. S. Department of Agriculture, consumers can find a number of answers at the USDA.
"The department assists thousands of people each day through call-in services, publications, classes and a variety of other methods," Chadwick said. "If your question has anything to do with food, family or finances, USDA can probably help."
Here are some typical consumer questions the department receives, with answers to help you become better informed:
Question: I thawed a beef roast on the counter and marinated it there, too. The meat's been out for nearly a day. Is it safe to eat?
Answer: No, don't count on it. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service advises consumers to thaw meat and poultry in the refrigerator, not on the countertop, and to do the same with marinating. Get the facts you need by ordering the free booklet "The Safe Food Books--Your Kitchen Guide" from FSIS Publications, Room 1163-S, USDA, Washington, D.C. 20250. Ask for a list of other free food safety publications.
Q: I cooked a frozen entree in my new toaster oven. The food smells funny and I'm not sure if the appliance worked properly. What should I do?
A: Whatever you do, don't taste the entree. Refrigerate or freeze a sample--in its original container, if possible. Mark the wrapping clearly so no one will eat the food by mistake, and notify the store where you bought it.
Then, if the entree contains meat or poultry, call USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline for help with any additional steps you should take. Hotline staffers can also answer any other questions about the safety, wholesomeness and labeling of meat and poultry. The number is (202) 472-4485, or, for hearing-impaired persons with access to TDD equipment, (202) 447-3333. Or write, Meat and Poultry Hotline, USDA-FSIS, Room 1163-S, Washington 20250.
If your questionable entree does not contain meat or poultry, contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Consumer Affairs Office in your area (check the telephone listings under "U.S. Government"). FDA regulates foods other than meat and poultry.
As for the appliance--or any other nonfood item--register complaint directly with the company.
Q: I know I consume too much sodium. How can I cut down?
A: Write to the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo. 81009, for a free copy of "Sodium--Think About It." USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services developed this brochure to help consumers shake excess sodium from their diets through careful food selection and preparation. The Consumer Information Center offers other USDA publications on food and nutrition; ask for free catalogue.
Q: How can I plan the most nutritious meals for the least amount of money?
A: USDA's Human Nutrition Information Service published a booklet with you in mind. "Your Money's Worth in Foods" includes many practical guidelines on meal planning and shopping that can help you put your money where your nutrition is. Send a $2.25 check or money order to the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo. 81009.
In addition, USDA's Food and Nutrition Service has launched "Make Your Food Dollars Count," a special effort to help low-income consumers--especially food stamp users--buy and prepare more nutritious, less expensive food. The project includes pamphlets on such topics as comparing brands, checking unit pricing and reading food labels. A set of four pamphlets, in English or Spanish, may be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents for $2. (ask for GPO stock number 001-024-00215-1). If you're a Food Stamp recipient, these publications are available free from the local Food Stamp office.
Another resource for consumers is USDA's Cooperative Extension Service. Extension home economists--located in more than 3,000 counties nationwide--teach consumers about food, nutrition and health. Your local extension office is as close as the telephone. Look in the directory under the federal, state, city or county listings.
Q: I plan to plant a garden this year. Where can I find information on gardening and home food preservation?
A: Your local extension office will have recommendations for both, based on the latest USDA research.
Q: My children--9, 12 and 17--would like to try something new. Is there one organization all three could enjoy?
A: Try the 4-H program. Available to all children--from city, farm and in-between--this youth arm of the Cooperative Extension system involves nearly 5 million participants in learn-by-doing experiences. Do your children want to learn more about computers, government, conservation, camping, agriculture? They can pursue these and many other interests by enrolling in 4-H.
And on the subject of families, the local extension office is also available to help with parenting skills and other ways to strengthen family relationships.