Got a question about food? The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline may have an answer.
The Hotline received 50,000 calls last year, says Laura Fox, director of the Public Awareness Office for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which handles the hotline.Though the hotline is geared to meat and poultry, the home economists will answer questions about other foods if they can. In fact, there have been tests and talk about expanding the hotline to include all foods. After meat and poultry, the most questions seem to come about vegetables, says Fox.
The majority of the questions deal with safe storage and handling of food, Fox told writers at the FDA-USDA Journalists Conference in San Francisco this winter. As a further breakdown, the topics that seem to puzzle people most include: preparation (17 percent of all calls); freezing (12 percent); food poisoning (10 percent); refrigeration (9 percent); and power outages, thawing, storage and handling (2 percent each).
If you have a question, you can reach the hotline at 1-800-535-4555.
What happens when a soup bone glows in the dark? Can an aficionado of Chinese food safely tote her favorite dinner from San Francisco to the Big Apple? And, a distraught woman wonders, "Do we really have to throw out the whole roast just because my daughter-in-law mistook a daffodil bulb for an onion and sliced it over the meat?"
These are some of the more exotic questions that consumers have asked over the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline.
The caller who complained of the glowing soup bone, left overnight in the sink, was told that it has been contaminated with an iridescent bacteria and should be thrown out. The woman with a taste for Chinese food would have to freeze her meal and carry it in an ice chest to safely take it coast-to-coast. And the irate mother-in-law lost her roast. After some research, the Hotline staff found that daffodil bulbs are toxic to humans and could have contaminated the meat.
Here are answers to some of the more typical questions that Hotline callers have asked:
Q. Is it safe to refreeze meat that has been thawed in the refrigerator?
A. As long as food is thawed properly, refreezing is perfectly safe. Thawing in the refrigerator is a safe method, so it would be fine to refreeze meat if you can't use it within a couple of days. Be aware, though that repeated freezing will lower the quality of the food.
Q. I left a large pot of homemade soup on the counter overnight. Will reheating make it safe to eat?
A. Unfortunately, it would not be safe to use your soup. While cooking does kill most bacteria, there are food poisoners that are not destroyed by ordinary cooking. The combination of many hours and the warmth of the soup at room temperature would provide an excellent growing ground for them.
Since you can't be sure of the bacterial level in the soup, it's best not to take a chance. Remember the two-hour rule. Cooked and perishable foods should not be held at room temperature longer than two hours.
Q. I saw a roast in the meat counter at the grocery story that was a dark maroon color and had a use-by date that was later than usual. Is this some kind of new packaging that keeps meat fresher?
A. The meat you saw was probably vacuum-packaged, which accounts for the change in color. With traditional packaging, oxygen penetrates the plastic wrapping and combines with the pigment in meat to produce the deep red color.
Q. Is it safe to cook a turkey all day in the oven with the temperature set at 250 degrees F.?
A. This method is not recommended. Because of the low oven temperature and the large size of a turkey, your food might take more than four hours to reach a high enough temperature to destroy bacteria. Therefore, it could be unsafe to eat. The quality of meat might suffer, too, since during prolonged cooking some areas would tend to become dry. We don't recommend cooking meat or poultry at oven temperatures below 325 degrees F.
Q. A friend recently gave me a recipe in which beef cubes are marinated for several hours. Then this same marinade is used as a dipping sauce. I've heard you shouldn't re-use marinade that's been on raw meat, but my friend says it's OK, because that's what the recipe says. Who is right?
A. You are. Marinade that has held raw meat contains raw juices. These juices may contain bacteria that, if eaten, could make you sick.
Even if the marinade contains an acid ingredient to slow bacterial growth, it will not destroy bacteria. If the recipe calls for using the marinade as part of a dipping sauce, bring it to a full boil for several minutes. Otherwise, reserve some for dipping in the first place and use the rest to marinate. Remember to marinate foods in the refrigerator.
Q. I saw a recipe for pasta in cream sauce that I thought I'd like to fix for a church supper. But it calls for raw eggs to be combined with a cream mixture, then with the hot pasta. The eggs are never cooked. I hear now that the eggs should be fully cooked. What do you think?
A. Recent studies have led researchers to believe that salmonella may be present in the yolks of some eggs. So, we're recommending that eggs be thoroughly cooked to kill the bacteria.
This is especially important for young children, older people, and those who are ill or immune-compromised. For your church supper, you'd do well to find another recipe. Also, the time the casserole would spend out of the refrigerator in transit to the church would increase the potential bacterial growth.
Q. Some friends have invited us to go night skiing in an area that's about a two-hour drive from our home. I would like to take a hearty chicken gumbo soup to have for dinner when we arrive. Can I keep the soup hot enough to serve?
A. A clean, well-functioning thermos will keep your soup at a safe high temperature for several hours. Be sure to wash the thermos with soap and warm water. Also check the seal around the stopper to make sure it fits tightly. Just before you are ready to pour the soup into the thermos, rinse the thermos with boiling water. Then bring the soup to as high a temperature as possible before pouring it in. The soup should be hot to the touch at serving time.
Q. I'm confused about all the types of ham available in my supermarket. Can you explain the differences?
A. There are basically four types of hams:
-Cured. uncooked hams. Must be cooked to a uniform internal temperature of 160 degrees F. Leftovers should be tightly wrapped and refrigerated within two hours and will keep four to five days.
-Fully-cooked hams (not canned) should be laveled as such and can be eaten as is, cold or heated. They should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator and will keep about one week.
-Fully-cooked canned hams almose always need to be refrigerated. Check the label for instructions. Generally, they will keep in the refrigerator for six to nine months. When you use the ham, be sure the can isn't showing any bulges, cracks, dents or rust. They do not need cooking, but can be heated before serving.
-Country ham, country-style ham or dry-cured ham has been dried and cured with salt, then smoked and aged for a distinctive flavor. Because of this special process, these hams do not need refrigerators and can be kept several months. Since they continue to age, you may find small mold patches on the outer skin. These can be trimmed away. After cutting into these hams, it's best to use them right away.
Q. Can I freeze ham?
A. Yes, but you may be disappointed with the results. Ham, like other cured products, tends to lose flavor and texture in the freezer. To protect against moisture loss, wrap either uncooked or leftover ham tightly in freezer paper or plastic. Don't freeze it for more than a month or two.
Q. An article says turkey or ham cooked in brown paper grocery bags turn out extra tender. Also, I've heard you can use plastic containers like margarine tubs in the microwave. Is it safe?
A. We don't recommend the use of untensils, dishes or bags that are not originally meant to be used incooking.
Dishes and utensils designed for use with food must meet strict standards and specifications. Brown bags often are composed of recycled materials that could cause a fire, or contain chemicals that could leech into the food you're cooking. Margarine tubs aren't intended for heating to microwave temperatures -- the container could melt into your food.