As all parents know, keeping our families healthy is one of our primary concerns. Issues regarding food safety and full disclosure on food labels have become extremely important, particularly over the last few years as more and more parents are demanding to know what is in their children’s foods.
Dr. Elisabeth Hagan has been the Under Secretary for Food Safety for the USDA since 2010, and is a principal member of the President’s Food Safety Working Group. This afternoon, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Hagen directly to ask her questions about food safety and keeping our families healthy.
Our conversation began with me explaining to Dr. Hagen that I am the parent of a severely food-allergic child who is also at high risk for food-borne illnesses. In my family we know all too well about the potential repercussions of misinformation, as well as hidden contaminants and allergens in food. With that said, it comes as no surprise that I am a proponent of any measures that would be helpful for consumers to know exactly what they are purchasing. Dr. Hagan said that as the Under Secretary for Food Safety, it is her goal is to continue to put emphasis on better information for consumers. After all, she herself has two young children, and has the same concerns regarding food safety that most of us have with our own families. She recognizes that people genuinely want to know what is and is not in the food they are consuming and serving to their children.
People care about food labeling — on everything from packaged foods to meats and poultry. Since there are many aspects of food labeling and safety that continue to be confusing, such as hidden ingredients and GMO’s, Dr. Hagen says that it is extremely important that claims be verified (and verifiable) by the community.
One such issue that might be confusing is how to keep the food we purchase safe. Throughout the nation, we have recently endured storms and other natural disasters, many of which have brought with them long-term power outages. For her part, the USDA tries to send out as much information as possible regarding food safety prior to any major storms, and to continue pushing out information and updates via social media. When asked what people should know about staying food-safe in an emergency situation, Dr. Hagen suggested sticking with the old adage of when in doubt, throw it out. She also referred to the guidelines for food safety in a power failure which can be found and printed in PDF format at the government’s Food Safety site.
Food safety is a vital concern in this country with 48 million Americans getting sick from food-borne illnesses every year. Though that number has been greatly reduced, Dr. Hagen acknowledges that there are always going to be pathogens and causes for concern. She and her team are working diligently to keep up with the evolution of such pathogens, so that people can feel safe with what they are putting on the table.
For any questions regarding food safety, Dr. Hagen recommends taking advantage of the USDA’s app called Ask Karen, which can be used in both English and Spanish. Ask Karen is an online database populated with answers to thousands of questions regarding food safety. Using your iOS (iPhone/ iPad) or Android device, you can also chat live with a food safety expert via the app on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. EST. You can also “ask Karen” questions directly from your PC.
In the meantime, we can all help reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses in our homes, taking precautions such as using separate cutting boards for raw foods and using a thermometer to make sure that foods are cooked well enough to kill any harmful bacteria that may be present. For example, hamburgers should be cooked to 160°F, and chicken should be cooked to at least 165°F. These steps are important in any household for safety purposes, and they are especially vital for the at-risk population. For more ways to keep your food safe, see the FDA’s list of tips to prevent food-borne illnesses.
As we continue to work towards labels on all food products to be as clear and transparent as possible, let’s do what we can to keep the food we buy safe for our families!