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Garry McKee, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service, has some stocking stuffers he'd like to see in every American household come Christmas Day -- a meat thermometer and a bar of soap.
Making sure that meat is cooked to the proper temperature, washing surfaces on which foods are prepared and thoroughly washing hands are the three pillars of avoiding food-borne illnesses, McKee said last week at the American Public Health Association (APHA) conference in San Francisco.
He was there to announce the publication of a new pamphlet from USDA called Food Safety and Food Security: What Consumers Need to Know.
The pamphlet -- available online, free by phone and at USDA's ''food safety mobiles'' at tailgate parties nationwide -- outlines what consumers can do to protect against food-borne illnesses.
The rules may seem old hat to an older generation of Americans who learned them from food-savvy mothers and home economic teachers. But today, knowledge that was once taken for granted isn't as widespread.
''As we focus on other things, I think some of the basics have fallen through the cracks. So if they're not taught at home, people don't get them,'' says McKee.
There's also a darker side to the issue since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is part of a larger Homeland Security effort to keep the U.S. food supply safe from terrorism.
The food supply could all too easily be tampered with, and ordinary citizens are in the vanguard of noticing what's out of the ordinary, says McKee.
''It's like a lot of things,'' he says. ''We've taken our food supply in the country for granted. It's the safest in the world, but since 9/11, we need to raise our consciousness and our awareness. We can't take it for granted.''
Still, hysteria isn't warranted, says Georges Benjamin, APHA executive director.
''You're more likely to get sick because you didn't wash your hands or you ate old food out of your refrigerator. But the point is that all of us -- both individual citizens and the government -- need to be on our best watch. We know there are bad people out there and they do bad things.''
The take-home message, Benjamin says, is to use common sense and report possible tampering. The USDA operates a meat and poultry hotline at 888-674-6854 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET on weekdays. FSIS maintains a line, 800-233-3935, that is monitored around the clock to track problems.
''It acts as a trip wire, allowing us to notice an emerging pattern,'' McKee says.
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