USDA Challenges Consumers to Test Their Back to School Food Safety Smarts

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USDA Challenges Consumers to Test Their Back to School Food Safety Smarts


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Heading back to school means getting into a new routine. As moms and dads pack lunches for their kids before a busy day of class and extra-curricular activities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) encourages families to update their food safety routine and take precautions that will help prevent food poisoning in America's young students.

"Preventing foodborne illness is part of USDA's public health mission, but one in six Americans is still expected to get sick from the food they eat this year," Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen said. "Back to school time provides an excellent opportunity for the whole family to brush up on food safety steps."

When it comes to food safety, are you an A+ student? This true or false quiz is based on real calls to USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). The hotline is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is staffed by specialists who can answer consumers' questions about safely handling, cooking and storing food.

True or False: To effectively destroy germs on my hands, I need to wash them for 20 seconds.

True. Wash hands before and after handling food with soap and running water by rubbing hands together vigorously for at least 20 seconds. The mechanical action of rubbing your hands creates friction that helps dislodge bacteria and viruses. Warm or hot water is preferable to cold water because it helps dissolve fats and foods, aiding in microbe removal and the deactivation of pathogens. If soapy water is not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs, including viruses.

True or False: The "let stand" step of microwave meal instructions is only there so I don't burn myself.

False. If the food label says, "Let stand for x minutes after cooking," do not skimp on the standing time. Food continues to generate heat after the microwave is turned off, so letting your microwaved food sit for a few minutes actually helps your food cook more. That extra minute or two could mean the difference between a delicious meal and food poisoning. After waiting a few minutes, check the food with a food thermometer to make sure it is 165 °F or above.

True or False: I need to put some sort of cold source in my lunchbox.

True. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 °F, so perishable food transported without an ice source will not stay safe long. Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but pack at least two ice sources with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box you use. You can use two frozen gel packs that are 5-by-3 inches or larger, or combine a frozen gel pack with a frozen juice box. When packing your bag lunch, place the ice sources above and below the perishable food items to keep them cold. If there is a refrigerator available at work or school, store perishable items there upon arrival. If you place your insulated bag in the refrigerator, leave the lid or bag open so that cold air can keep the food cold.

Some food is safe without a cold source. Items that do not require refrigeration include whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles.

True or False: As long as it isn't topped with chicken or sausage, leftover pizza is safe to eat if unrefrigerated overnight.

False. Bacteria grow readily in carbohydrate-rich, cooked foods. While uncooked vegetables are safe to store at room temperature in their raw state, cooked foods such as casseroles, rice, pasta and pizza—whether or not the dish contains meat or poultry—must be refrigerated within two hours after cooking. The possibility of bacterial growth increases after cooking, because the drop in temperature allows bacteria to thrive. If a food has been left between 40 and 140 °F for more than two hours, discard it, even though it may look and smell okay. The kinds of bacteria that cause food poisoning do not affect the look, smell, or taste of food. Put leftover pizza in the refrigerator right away, and it will be safe to eat for three to four days.

Have Questions? Ask Karen!

The best cheat sheet—ahem, study partner—is USDA's virtual food safety representative, Ask Karen. Ask Karen is available 24 hours a day at or on your smartphone, with more than 1,300 food safety questions and answers searchable by topic and by product. The site is available in Spanish at  and  The Mobile Ask Karen app, which has English and Spanish capabilities, can also be downloaded from the Apple and Android app stores.

Consumers can email, chat with a live representative, or call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline directly from the app. To use these features, simply choose "Contact Us" from the menu. The live chat option and the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), are available in English and Spanish from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

This outreach is part of a multi-faceted USDA initiative to prevent foodborne illness. As part of this initiative, USDA has joined the Ad Council, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to launch Food Safe Families, a consumer food safety education campaign. It is the first joint public service campaign to empower families to further reduce their risk of foodborne illness at home by checking their key food safety steps: clean, separate, cook, and chill. For more information, go to

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