Food safety has never been more important to US consumers. In recognizing this, the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service created ‘Ask Karen’ – a virtual food safety advice website designed to answer consumer food-safety questions.

“In the early 2000s, FSIS recognized technology was allowing websites to use virtual experts to help their audience with various problems, and we began to explore the same tactic for helping the consumers who call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline,” says Diane Van, deputy director of FSIS’ Food Safety Education Staff. “Putting this [Ask Karen] capability on our website seemed like a logical next step; it allows people to find answers to their questions around the clock.”

In 2004, USDA hotline food-safety experts created a database of questions and answers based on their existing fact sheets and other educational materials. The hotline staff now constantly researches and updates the database based on consumer inquiries or new product data. FSIS only makes changes to the database based on recommendations from its microbiologists and policy staff.

“The interactive site is one of FSIS’ many efforts to empower consumers with knowledge as we continue to drive down incidences of foodborne illness,” Van says. “USDA knows it is our job to make food as safe as possible before it reaches consumers’ tables, but knowing the risk of food poisoning is not zero – and it may never be zero – we have to get the word out about what consumers can do to protect themselves.”

Virtual food safety

‘Ask Karen’ is a virtual food-safety representative who offers advice about properly handling, storing and preparing food to prevent illness. The site is an automated and interactive response system, available 24/7 offering nearly 1,500 food-safety answers searchable by topic and by product. The website gives consumers immediate access to information that can help protect them and their families, any time needed.

‘Ask Karen’ is backed by real people. The Meat and Poultry Hotline responds to emailed questions and to the live chat questions between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays. Its knowledge base is populated with questions that have been asked by real consumers.

As consumers have become more Internet-savvy, they have been using the Ask Karen database and chat in increasing numbers, Van says. They ask the same types of questions their food-safety experts receive via the toll-free hotline on safe cooking, storage, handling, labeling and more.

“During Hurricane Sandy, Ask Karen received an influx of chats about food safety during power outages,” Van says. “And around Thanksgiving and Christmas – the busiest season for the hotline, calls center on safe handling and cooking of turkey, ham, beef roasts and holiday buffets.”

One of the more memorable calls the hotline has received was from someone wanting to thaw a turkey in the dryer, which is unsafe, Van relays. “So far this holiday season, the top questions we are receiving include: ‘How long does it take to cook a turkey, based on weight; How long does it take to thaw a turkey in the refrigerator; How long can I refrigerate a thawed turkey before cooking it; Did I buy a fresh turkey too soon; Will it be safe until Thanksgiving; and how long is a turkey safe in the freezer?’” she adds.

In May 2011, FSIS created a mobile version of the Ask Karen site. The app is downloadable from the Android and iTunes app stores. In mobile format, people can take “Karen” with them to the grocery store, farmers market and into the kitchen. In the first year the app was available, traffic to Ask Karen increased 15-fold.

“Ask Karen and Mobile Ask Karen have a nearly 99 percent self-service rate; nearly all users are able to find the answers to their questions.”

Some of the most frequently asked questions on the app include: “Can E. coli be associated with poultry?” and “At what temperatures do bacteria grow the fastest?”

FSIS’ Mobile Ask Karen app provides consumers access to answers to these and other food-safety questions whenever and wherever they need the information. Consumers might need help when they are in stores buying groceries or in their kitchens or at a grill cooking dinner, Van says.

Ask Karen is available in English and Spanish from desktop computers and mobile devices, and people can either engage in live chats or call the Meat and Poultry Hotline. Ask Karen also can be accessed via FoodSafety.gov’s Facebook page.

“We know people are using mobile devices more and more to get information when and where they need it, so our most recent focus has been giving people mobile access to ‘Karen,’” Van concludes.