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Q & A with Diane Van, Manager, USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline

Diane Van is Manager of the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, where she answers all manner of questions about food safety. The Meat and Poultry Hotline has answered more than 2 million calls since it was established in 1985 and fields more than 80,000 calls each year. The Hotline is staffed by food safety specialists with backgrounds in home economics, nutrition and food technology.

Be Smart. Be Well. sat down with Diane Van to discuss food safety. Watch the video interview above or read the transcript below.

To learn more about food safety, visit Be. Smart. Be Well. Food Safety.

What is one of the strangest phone calls that fielded by the hotline?

Diane Van: We had a college student one time call us and say that he was going to put his turkey - or that he had put his turkey in the dryer and turned the dryer on and felt that that would be a good way to defrost his turkey. But, after a few minutes, he got to so upset, after listening to the turkey tho - tumbling in the dyer, he stopped. Well, it wasn't a safe way to do it anyway because the heat is not a safe way to thaw a turkey. You need to thaw a turkey in a cold manner, whether it's in the refrigerator, in cold water or you can do it in the microwave, and quickly get it into the oven. But the only safest way to, to thaw a turkey is on cold water or in the refrigerator.

What are some common misconceptions about food safety, especially regarding meat and poultry?

Diane Van: Some common misconceptions of food safety are that, if you look at food, meat and poultry in particular, you can not tell that it's cooked just by the way it looks. There's a misconception that food can sit out for any length of time after it's been cooked and still be safe and can be refrigerated later and it really doesn't matter how long it sits out. And, also, there's a misconception, well, I've always done it that way, and it's - I've never gotten sick.

Meat and poultry is - you need to cook meat and poultry to an internal temperature. And using a food thermometer is the most important tool in the kitchen for cooking. Knowing the internal temperature and making sure that it's cooked to a safe temperature is critical.

How long can you leave cooked food out of the refrigerator?

Diane Van: As far as cooling is concerned, it's important to get food into the refrigerator within two hours after you've cooked it to make sure that it stays safe. And, when the temperatures are above 90 degrees, that is reduced to the - to one hour. So it's important to get your food into the refrigerator as quickly as possible after it's been cooked. And just because you've always done it that way doesn't mean that that's the right way. You could be getting an illness and think that it's a virus or a bug that's going around when, in fact, it could be foodborne illness.

Is there a strategy to follow when you go shopping for food?

Diane Van: Even when you're at the grocery store, it's important to remember food safety. When you get to the grocery store, make sure that you pick up the refrigerator or freezer items last. You don't want to put those in your cart and take them all around the grocery store and, and let the temperature rise. Another thing it's always important to go home immediately after buying your groceries. So make that your last errand, go to the grocery store. And then go right home, and put your refrigerated items away immediately and your freezer items away immediately.

Also, if you are not going to be able to go home immediately, then take a cooler in your car, with a cold source, a, a freezer gel or some ice. And then put your refrigerator and freezer items in the cooler in the car so that they will stay cold while you do other errands that you need to do.

What should you do if you hear about a food recall in the news?

Diane Van: If you hear of a recall in the media, make sure that you take note of all of the information that they're giving you. You want to make sure you have the brand, the size of the package. You want to make sure that you have any of the codes. And, if it's a meat or poultry product, make sure you get the EST or the P number. That's very important because that will tell you if you have the product in your home. And that brings to mind one point. If you go to some of these large warehouse stores and you buy large packages of meat or, say, burgers or chicken breast perhaps or you buy large quantities and then you go home and you divide them into smaller packages, make sure that you transfer the information from the label onto those additional packages. Make sure you write down the EST number or the P number.

That way that - if there is a recall, you can go to the freezer and quickly identify whether the product that you have is the type that's in your freezer. If you do have the product, you want to make sure that you discard it in the manner that's proper. The media will advise you whether to take it back to the grocery store or whether to discard it. And, if you discard it, you want to make sure that you discard it in a safe manner. Disguise it; wrap it in lots of packaging before you throw it in the trash so that animals couldn't get into it or no one could take it out of the trash can. It's very important to make sure that, that any kind of recalled product doesn't get, um, to where someone can eat it. And don't determine its safety by tasting it. Just throw it away. If it's been recalled, discard it.

What do you say to people that say "But I love my eggs runny and my hamburgers rare?"

Diane Van: When cooking eggs, it's important to make sure that the yolks and whites are firm. Anything other than that, you're, you know, you're just not sure that it's safe. So it's important to cook eggs until the yolk and the white are firm. A rare hamburger - you are taking a chance. We highly recommend that you cook hamburgers to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and use a good thermometer to check the temperature.

What is the one of the simplest things you can do to be food safe in the kitchen?

Diane Van: It's important to wash your hands before you prepare food. Washing hands in warm, soapy water for 20 seconds is very important. And a way that you can know whether you've washed them for 20 seconds is to sing Happy Birthday twice. As you're washing make sure you sing to yourself or out loud, singing Happy Birthday. But washing your hands is so important, both for food safety and disease prevention.

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