The federal government's effort to combat the rising number of food poisoning cases is employing a new weapon: the telephone. Beginning next month, consumers in three states can call a toll-free number and question home economists on a range of food handling, storage or preparation issues.
The trial program, labeled the Food Safety Hotline, runs through August.
The service, a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, is initially available only in Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts. If the three-month experiment proves successful then the system will be expanded nationwide.
The government's latest venture is a more ambitious version of an ongoing USDA program--the Meat and Poultry Hotline--which has been in operation since 1985. Broadening the subject matter beyond meat, however, is thought necessary as federal officials have acknowledged that food-borne illnesses have reached "enormous" proportions.
"A toll-free number is an effective way of reaching people," said Karen Stuck, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "And it's effective because we can deal one on one. Most questions can be answered (immediately)."
As evidence of the concept's success, Stuck points to the USDA's meat hot line. In 1987, the service received 48,500 inquiries, a significant jump from the previous year's 28,000 calls.
A large portion of the increase was attributed to the public's heightened concerns about salmonella contamination in poultry. In fact, there were times when the system was deluged with calls about the bacteria, Stuck said. The agency handled the overflow by offering callers a recording on food safety while they waited for operators.
Stuck anticipates any future toll-free system is also likely to encounter similar problems meeting demand because of the public's growing awareness of food-borne illness.
"There are times when issues will arise where there are a lot of questions because of a product recall, a contamination or some other problem," she said.
While the future of Food Safety Hotline is being determined, consumers throughout the country can still query the agency on beef, pork, poultry and other meat issues by calling the USDA hot line at (800) 535-4555 for information.
Reduced Risk--Not all food-borne illnesses are on the increase, according to a recent federal report.
Trichinosis, a potentially fatal disease most often associated with pork, has been in remission for years.
One reason for the decline, according to an FDA report, is that Americans have long known to cook pork thoroughly to destory trichina--the nematode worms that cause trichinosis. The pork industry has also made advancements in breeding and handling practices that have reduced the parasite's presence to far less than 1% of the total domestic swine population.
Trichina, which invade the intestines and muscle tissue, can trigger fever, nausea and diarrhea. There were 46 such cases reported in 1985, the last year for which figures are available, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics. The most recent level is down from the previous year's total of 65.
Pork is not alone as a source of trichinosis. Exotic game meats--bear in particular--have also been identified as being responsible for as much as 35% of the cases in recent years.
Although reported incidents represent only a fraction of those illness that actually occur, health officials believe that trichinosis has "declined progressively" in the past 40 years.
"Trichinosis is an example of a food-borne illness that has become rare today, in all probability because people realize that pork has to be cooked well to kill the carrier of the illness," an FDA report stated.
By correlation, consumers would also be well-advised to cook chicken, associated with increasing levels of salmonella contamination, as thoroughly as pork.
Ad Dispute--A Quaker Oats Co. magazine advertisement has come under fire by a consumer advocacy group for exaggerating medical research.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a petition filed with the Federal Trade Commission last week, stated that a Quaker ad regarding oat's role in reducing cholesterol levels was misleading.
A spokesman for the company, familiar with the group's complaint, said there was nothing false or misleading about the promotional material.
In particular, the Washington-based group took issue with language that seemed to indicate that products such as oatmeal and oat bran are directly responsible for significant reductions in cholesterol.
Also in dispute is whether oats' effect on cholesterol, by extension, can substantially reduce the risk of heart attack.
"The claim (in the ad) appears to have science behind it, and that turns out to be an exaggeration," said Charlie Mitchell, a Center for Science staff attorney.
At the heart of the dispute is a passage that reads: