Volume 10, Number 1, 2005
Note: This is a "Text Only" version.
This issue of The Food Safety Educator is dedicated to electronic services and other items FSIS rolled
out in 2004. Featured are "Ask Karen" and a new FSIS Web site.
In the center, you'll also find a pull-out section that reports on the activities of the USDA Food Safety Mobile last year.
You can read about changes in The Food Safety Educator, including our staff, Web page, and content. As always,
we welcome your input.
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Best Wishes, Dianne
As The Food Safety Educator goes into its 10th year of bringing you news and information, we are saying
"Good-bye and best wishes" to its editor, Dianne Durant, as she retires from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Dianne worked on the newsletter since its launch in 1996, bringing it to more than 12,000 subscribers in 2004. She has
covered topics from the unveiling of the "Safe Handling Instructions" label to irradiation of ground beef, use of Hazard
Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) for Federal inspections and consumer training, conferences, Internet resources,
social marketing, and the creation of Fight BAC!® and Thermy™.
The Food Safety Education Staff wishes Dianne the best of luck and much enjoyment in her retirement.
We'll miss you!
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A Food Safety Educator Is "Born"
By Tangela Allen and Laura Reiser
As Athena sprang forth from the head of Zeus fully grown and in full armor, ready for victory, and
full of wisdom, on April 20, 2004, "Ask Karen" was launched onto the Food Safety and Inspection Service's
(FSIS) Web site, ready to overcome foodborne illness by answering the public's food safety questions.
As a virtual representative (vRep), the "Ask Karen" tool sprang forth from many heads—technical information
specialists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline, public affairs specialists, and Web
developers. They provided the vRep "wisdom" by populating its database with answers to anticipated questions.
The team armed the vRep with speed and flexibility by giving it an interactive ability such that users can type in a food
safety question and get an almost instantaneous answer or referral. By using the Web as its venue, the vRep team
made "Ask Karen" available to users anytime, anywhere. When users go to the FSIS home page (www.fsis.usda.gov)
and click on the link "Ask a Food Safety Question," they meet "Ask Karen."
Virtual and "Personal"
A vRep is an automated information source designed to display answers to questions which consumers can ask about a set of
topics. The topics for "Ask Karen" are food safety, food inspection, food storage and preparation, food recalls,
and other topics related to meat, poultry, and egg products. The responses given by "Karen" contain specific answers
to questions along with optional Web sites and links that will answer each question in detail.
The automated response system provides streamlined information and data that make getting questions answered easier for
consumers. This differs from a search engine, which returns every reference to the topic available on the FSIS Web site.
With "Ask Karen," consumers receive their responses from a database, which contains safe food-handling procedures
for consumers and consumer food safety education information.
The vRep is designed to enhance the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline by providing consumers 24/7 access to more than 20 years of
safe food-handling knowledge assembled by the Hotline staff. With "Ask Karen," consumers just type in a question at
their convenience. It doesn't matter if it's 2:00 in the afternoon or 2:00 in the morning.
Once a consumer types a question into the designated box on the "Ask Karen" Web page, the tool returns a response
from the database. Responses may also include a link where the consumer can find more information.
If the user isn't sure of the question or just wants to explore the "wisdom" of "Ask Karen," there is
another option. The "Help" button leads the consumer to "Question Categories." The consumer can type
one of these categories in the question box, then the vRep will display the current list of example questions in the category.
Learn Something New Every Day
If "Karen" doesn't understand the question, the vRep offers suggestions of alternative questions or refers the
consumer to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. The tool works best with simply stated questions; long explanations are not
needed for the tool to retrieve an answer.
The vRep "learns" to answer new questions or provide better answers based on the questions asked and terms used
by visitors. The system records each question and response that is given. Reports of this data are monitored and analyzed
by vRep team members on a daily basis. After careful analysis, the questions that are answered incorrectly or that may
pertain to other government agencies are assigned the correct response. In most cases, the consumers' variations
on questions are simply added into the tool. Unfamiliar or new terms are programmed into the vRep's pattern lists or
synonyms to allow the database to search for the correct response.
The timeframe to put together an answer can vary from a few minutes to a few days. While 85 to 90 percent of the answers
can be found within FSIS factsheets and other FSIS publications, there are questions that must be referred to other FSIS
divisions to determine and develop the correct response. All responses that are entered into the database must meet FSIS
requirements and guidelines from a scientific point of view. This is to ensure that consumers are getting the most up-to-date
information for the proper handling and storage of meat, poultry, and egg products.
The vRep team of seven food safety specialists and public affairs specialists began its work in January 2004, compiling
information and data collected from more than 20 years of research, knowledge, and training from the USDA Meat and Poultry
Hotline. By the end of 2004, "Ask Karen" contained more than 1,200 main questions and more than 5,500 variations
on these questions. The database contained 121 categories relating to meat, poultry, and egg products safe handling, food
storage, food preparation, food inspection, food recalls, and many other topics. The tool's accuracy is very high–higher than
the developers expected to achieve in less than a year.
A Model Educator
Although still a toddler on the Internet, "Ask Karen" has already answered thousands of questions. In
just the first year, more than 14,000 visitors asked 44,000 questions.
"Ask Karen" was listed as one the Government's "Best Practices" on the new "Federal Web Content
Managers Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Managing U.S. Federal Public Websites" (www.webcontent.gov/req2d4.shtml).
Through this and other venues, "Ask Karen" is used by other government agencies as a model of how to assist the
public with finding answers to questions and to help identify with the needs of the public.
In the future, the system may be broadened to contain information from all of the FSIS divisions to assist educators, food
service workers, and other visitors to the FSIS Web site who need more technical food safety information.
Ready to test "Karen's" knowledge? Go directly to "Ask
Karen" at www.fsis.usda.gov/food_safety_education/
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FSIS Puts on a New Face in Cyberspace
By Jason Waggoner
On April 20, 2004, FSIS launched its new Web site, featuring consistent navigation across the entire site.
It is much easier for users to work their way through desired content and more easily retrace their steps.
Internet users visit the site because they want food safety information. Usage statistics show that more than
half of visitors do not enter the Web site through the "front door," so they require a site that enables them
to quickly find desired content from any page. Visitors to the FSIS Web site will notice that the Agency gave the
site a fresh new design that greatly improves navigation and usability, allowing the user to more easily get to
the main content areas.
"As a public health agency, it is our goal to empower consumers with knowledge as we continue to drive
down the incidence of foodborne illness in America," said FSIS Acting Administrator Dr. Barbara Masters.
"This Web site gives consumers immediate access to the information that will help them protect themselves
and their families."
Consumers definitely go to the Web for information from the government. Approximately 58 percent of American Internet
users, or 68 million adults, have visited at least one government Web site, and most have visited more than one, according
to www.PewInternet.org (January 2002). Internet usage in the United States
continues to rise, meaning that the general public increasingly turns to online resources.
The new design also makes Spanish language navigation on the site easier. In one click, visitors can get from the
home page to a dedicated area with information in Spanish by using the "En Español" button. Studies show
the average Hispanic computer user spends more than half of his or her online time with Spanish language resources.
To meet that need, FSIS added more informational materials in Spanish.
FSIS gives all its users three new ways to find information: by activity, by audience, and by subject. The "I Want To
navigation area on the right side of the main pages allows the user to access the most popular Web actions and tasks in a single
click. For example, this area includes the "Visit the USDA Food Safety Mobile" option. This link takes the
viewer to the main Mobile page, where the user can see a video on the Mobile, get background information, look at the schedule,
and request a Mobile visit in the user's State.
With the "Browse by Subject" option, users can find the areas that most interest them with a single click.
This left-hand navigation area lists information by five major subject groupings, including "Food Safety Education,"
"Science," and "FSIS Recalls."
With the "Browse by Audience" option, users can find information assembled and organized specifically for them by
clicking on the drop-down box and selecting the appropriate designation. The site then takes the user to a main page
containing specific information geared toward a particular audience. These audiences include "Consumers & Educators," ]
"Businesses," and "Scientists & Researchers."
In the area of food safety education, both the "Consumers and Educators" (by audience) and the "Food Safety
Education" pages (by subject) give the user a variety of options to explore.
In addition to navigation changes, FSIS's Web staff will regularly update the front page of the new site to reflect current news,
Agency initiatives, and seasonal features to give it a continuously fresh look.
Statistics show the site redesign has been well received. As of March 2005, the number of people visiting the site had increased
by more than 250 percent since the launch. Overall customer satisfaction and the number of people recommending the site have
also increased significantly, according to the FSIS online customer satisfaction survey.
The FSIS site redesign was part of an aggressive program to enhance USDA's electronic government capabilities as part of the
President's Management Agenda. The USDA Web Presence initiative began with a new design of USDA's home page in January 2004 as
a first step to upgrade its services and be more responsive to customers' needs. FSIS is the first USDA agency to redesign its
Web site under the new Departmental standards.
Watch for a Google-powered search engine on the site in 2005.
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In late 2003 and throughout 2004, FSIS issued some traditional materials you can use and, of course, they are available on
the FSIS Web site.
- Conference Proceedings, Thinking Globally-Working Locally: A Conference on Food Safety Education
- "Food Safety and Food Security: What Consumers Need to Know"
- Food safety facts with visual cultural motifs to attract the attention of Native Americans and African-Americans
- "Let's Talk Turkey" all-in-one brochure that answers the most common questions about preparing and handling turkey
- "Protect Your Baby and Yourself From Listeriosis" plain-language factsheet in English and Spanish
- "Safe Handling of Take-Out Foods"
- Talking About Disaster: Guide for Standard Messages by the National Disaster Education Coalition, of which FSIS is a member. The guide is designed to assist those who provide disaster safety information to the general public.
Translated into Spanish
- "Cooking for Groups" color booklet especially for volunteer food preparers.
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More Changes on the Web
Get the most current information from the FSIS Web site by signing up for E-mail updates. Customers may sign up for 21
initial subscription options across 8 categories to find out when pages have been revised. Options range from recalls to
export information to FSIS issuances such as regulations, directives, and notices. News releases and The Food Safety Educator
are also available. FSIS will send you an E-mail when the pages you chose are updated.
From September 2004 to April 2005, more than 11,000 visitors to the site subscribed to the service, which averages 50 new
subscribers each day. Sign up on the FSIS Web site at www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/Email_Subscription/
Web Address Changes
The Food Safety Educator Web page address has changed. Be sure to update your bookmarks.
The Food Safety Educator
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I'm very pleased to be the new editor of The Food Safety Educator. The
tagline for the Educator has always been, "Your consumer education connection." Our goal is to make that the focus of the
publication. Other publications and news sources such as the e-newsletter "EdNet" will continue to cover news about
food safety science and education for industry and food service.
Features and topics planned for the Educator in 2005 include:
- List of new publications, materials, curricula, and other educational tools for consumers and consumer educators from USDA and its partners;
- Tips on using the media to educate consumers;
- News on social marketing efforts and developments;
- News on conferences and training;
- Articles from your peers about their successes in grass-roots education and behavior change (send us your ideas);
- Information on how to leverage partnerships to enhance your programs; and
- New technologies and methodologies you can use in consumer education and behavior change.
Do you think something is missing from this list? Do you have a success story or a valuable experience to share with others
interested in educating consumers about food safety? Please send your ideas and comments to me at
fax to (301) 504-0204, or mail to our address on the back page. I look forward to hearing from you.
Laura S. Reiser
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How To Keep in Touch With Food Safety Education Information
The Food Safety Educator
This free newsletter reports on food safety educational programs and materials. It is distributed to more
than 12,000 educators throughout the country, including public health offices, extension educators,
industry, and consumer groups.
To subscribe: provide your name, organization, and mailing address.
The newsletter is also available on the FSIS Web site: www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/food_safety_educator/
- Write to USDA/FSIS/FSES, Mail Stop 5268, 5601 Sunnyside Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705, or
- Fax your request to (301) 504-0204, or
- E-mail your request to FSIS.Outreach@usda.gov
Sign up there to find out by E-mail when new editions are posted to the FSIS Web site.
More on the Web
- EdNet: a monthly electronic newsletter for food safety educators. To subscribe, send an E-mail message to
Listserv@foodsafety.gov. Send the message: Subscribe EDNET-L firstname lastname
- USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline: call toll-free 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), for the hearing-impaired (TTY) 1-800-256-7072
- Food and Drug Administration's Outreach and Information Center: Call toll-free 1-888-SAFEFOOD
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