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There’s a one-stop shop for food safety questions, and it comes replete with a hotline. Here's how to make the most of it. 

Alex Van Buren
April 28, 2017

“My mom didn’t know she was supposed to get rid of the plastic wrapped around the gefilte fish, and she boiled it in it for an hour,” read the text. “The plastic looks totally intact. Can we feed the gefilte fish to everyone or do we have to toss it?”

Food writers and editors get these sorts of texts and phone calls all the time. Here’s where we go to get our info, but you can cut out the middle (wo)man: It’s the good old USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture, which has a food safety hub. Monday to Friday, from 10am until 4pm, they even staff a hotline: 888-674-6854.

But if you’re a DIY person or your food query falls outside business hours, here are a few tips on negotiating the site. This page is typically a good starting point, and it has a handy search box in the upper right corner. But google is often going to be just as helpful—if not more so: Just type in your search words, like this: boiling plastic site:usda.gov.

That took me to a meat and poultry safety page, where—doing a search on the page for the words “heat” and “plastic”—I was able to ascertain that my friend’s plastic wrap likely wasn’t food-grade, and wasn’t “boil-in-bag” technology, and thus although the plastic looked intact, chemicals might have seeped in, and the gefilte fish had to go.

Watch: Should Cakes Frosted with Buttercream Be Refrigerated?

 

You can google any words in front of site:usda.gov, and poke around to see what comes up. Handy starter pages: Safe chicken handling, ground beef FAQs, and everything you want to know about eggs. A caveat is that with every new president comes a new secretary of the Department of Agriculture, and each administration brings its own agenda to this citizen safety advocacy site. Food safety guidelines are unfortunately subject to politics, but you can typically keep abreast of important breaking news on sites like this one or by following reliable major news sites.

And although we’re proponents of recycling and saving food whenever possible (ahem, lard), if you’re truly on the fence about something still being OK to eat, “When in doubt, throw it out” is a handy maxim to keep in mind!

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.

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