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Food Briefs

USDA Hot Line on Call to Fight Food Poisoning

November 20, 1986|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

Nothing takes the glow off the traditional Thanksgiving dinner like an episode of home-grown food poisoning. But such will be the case at numerous holiday meals as the result of poor food handling practices involving turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings.

As the nation's most important food-related holiday, Thanksgiving also serves as the source of more potential in-home contaminations than any other single day, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture officials.

Some of the causes of intestinal distress include improper thawing/cooking of the turkey and leaving food unrefrigerated for hours at a stretch. Another common problem is the transfer of harmful bacteria from raw meats to other foods by using the same surfaces or utensils for preparation without hot-water cleansing.

In fact, some estimates place the number of food-related illnesses in this country at 24 million annually and federal officials believe most of these potentially life-threatening contaminations occur in the home.

To combat a problem caused by both the lack of information and a tendency to follow family cooking traditions ill-suited to modern kitchens, the USDA has begun a toll-free phone service to answer consumers' questions about food issues. The program, called the Meat and Poultry Hot Line, is staffed by home economists who offer information on a wide variety of subjects from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. PST each weekday. The toll-free number is (800) 535-4555.

The effort, now in its second year, has already received more than 29,000 calls, with the Thanksgiving season providing most of the activity.

The USDA charts all calls and keeps statistics on consumers' concerns. The most common question involves basic food safety, but it is the uncommon query that highlights just how difficult an educational task faces this federal campaign.

For instance, a dentist called recently to ask whether he could preserve meat he was taking on a cruise by irradiating the items with prolonged exposure to X-rays from his office machine.

Others samplings of the more offbeat inquiries to the hot line include:

--"How are the feathers removed from a chicken?"

--"Why are yolks more yellow now (than in previous years)?"

--"I found a chicken's gall bladder still attached to a chicken breast. Is the breast safe to eat?"

--"I bought meat from a truck in the neighborhood. Is it OK to use?"

--"My spouse left the groceries in the car trunk for a week. Are they safe?"

--"What is the proper temperature for cooking lion meat?"

Others calls were more in the form of complaints such as one case where an inmate from a Pennsylvania prison phoned to say he was unhappy with the jail's food.

In another incident, a distressed woman called to say she believed her sister-in-law was trying to poison both her and her husband. Asked how this might have happened, the caller replied that the suspect sister-in-law did not eat the ham that she recently prepared and served to others. Those who did consume the meat became decidedly ill. The call was refered to local police authorities.

If there are questions regarding the upcoming holiday meal, it is best to phone before next Thursday. The hot line will be closed on Thanksgiving Day.

Containing Cancer--Consumers will soon be able to bring home the bacon without worrying about the extra baggage of a potential cancer-causing compound often found in the cooked meat.

The encouraging news on the breakfast front also comes as a result of recent USDA action. Earlier this month, the agency approved the use of a Vitamin E derivative that prevents the formation of nitrosamines--carcinogens that occur in bacon during cooking.

Whether food manufacturers will apply the vitamin-based substance, alpha tocopherol, to the popular breakfast food is unknown at this stage. But just its availability is a breakthrough that caps a decade of research into combatting the cancer-causing agents.

Food scientists have long known that, when heated, sodium nitrite, a chemical used to preserve bacon and other processed meats, has a tendency to combine with other naturally occuring particles to form nitrosamines. Laboratory studies have found that animals fed high doses of nitrosamines developed cancer.

In fact, concern over the presence of nitrosamines in food and its link to cancer led USDA officials, during the late 1970s, to considering banning the use of sodium nitrite altogether.

During this period, research was launched to isolate compounds capable of inhibiting the formation of these carcinogens. The work, which culminated with the recent approval of alpha tocopherol, was conducted by Hoffman-La Roche Inc., with USDA supervision.

The Nutley, N.J., firm has made this newest additive available to the food industry, and the substance can now be applied to the surface of the more than 1.5 billion pounds of bacon sold annually in this country.

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