WASHINGTON — For many, there’s no better way to ask questions than online, where the most bashful and curious can remain anonymous. Ask Karen, a food safety website designed for consumers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, allows consumers to do just that, encouraging them to let their hair down and ask any food safety question they may have.
Since 2004, askkaren.gov displays commonly asked questions, and gives consumers an opportunity to submit questions for an email response or engage in a live chat with an Ask Karen representative.
And, last spring FSIS expanded Ask Karen to a mobile app for android phones as well as a mobile website, m.askkaren.gov. The mobile app allows users to email questions and view commonly asked questions.
“Having Ask Karen in mobile form means that consumers can find the answers to their food safety questions when and where they need them, such as in the grocery store or at a barbecue, without having to wait until they get home to their computer,” USDA FSIS spokesperson Cathy Cochran said, noting that 200 consumers per day visited English and Spanish language versions of Mobile Ask Karen during its first six months.
On the website, the list of most commonly asked questions runs the gamut, from “How long does it take beef to thaw?” to “What are the symptoms of swine flu?” Consumers can also look for food definitions and explanations of how animals were raised, learning the meaning of terms such as “grass fed” or venison, or the difference between traditional slaughter and kosher or halal methods.
But, the top questions deal with food storage, “such as ‘Is food safe if left out overnight?’ ‘Is food safe after the date expires?’ and ‘How long can I keep meat in the refrigerator?’” she said.
“Trends in the news really affect the questions received, and there was an increase in questions about E. coli last fall after the agency announced that it would begin testing for six strains of non-O157 STEC,” said Cochran, adding that traffic to the website usually spikes surrounding food recalls.
Since the launch of the mobile Ask Karen app, the kinds of questions that consumers were asking didn’t change, but FSIS staff has been receiving more questions submitted by email.