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WASHINGTON -- "Keep it cool" is the message the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is broadcasting as part of its national campaign to spread the word about ways to reduce cases of foodborne illness.
"Educating consumers about safe refrigerator temperatures will help continue the decline we have witnessed in illnesses caused by listeria, and better protect public health," said USDA acting undersecretary for food safety Dr. Merle Pierson.
Specifically, the agency is seeking to remind consumers to check their refrigerator temperatures often, to keep bacteria away. The ideal refrigerator temperature should be at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Recent studies show that the risk of listeriosis, caused by the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, could be reduced by two-thirds if foods were chilled to a safe temperature.
While most people assume the internal refrigerator temperature control dial is sufficient, the agency says a refrigerator thermometer is far superior, although just 20 percent of consumers say they actually use one, according to a recent national study.
The increased focus on refrigerator temperature grew out of response to the revised Listeria monocytogenes risk assessment released in 2003 by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, which showed that raising awareness of proper refrigeration temperatures could be highly effective in reducing foodborne illness.
It’s also crucial to pack a refrigerator thermometer in coolers for picnics, according to the USDA, whose Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is working with the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a nonprofit organization whose partners include many of the industry's leading associations, to promote the BAC Down! campaign.
The BAC Down! Campaign encourages consumers to slow the growth of harmful bacteria in food by keeping refrigerator and cooler temperatures in the safe range -- 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
For more information, retailers are encouraged to visit www.fightbac.org.
In related news, to raise customer awareness that keeping their refrigerators cold enough is an effective way of preventing bacteria-caused foodborne illness, Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion said yesterday it would offer a special sale on refrigerator thermometers from May 25 to May 31.
Noted Food Lion director of food safety James Ball in a statement, "The best way to know if your refrigerator is 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below is to use a refrigerator thermometer."
Normally $2.99, the thermometers available in all of the retailer's luncheon meat section and dairy aisle, will go for $2.49. The 3.5-inch-long item is easy to read and can either sit on a shelf or hang from a rack.
The sale is part of the "Project Chill" program, which invites retailers to partner with the Partnership for Food Safety Education and the Food Marketing Institute to let consumers know about the importance of proper food preparation and storage to prevent foodborne illness.
"Refrigerator thermometers are an easy and inexpensive way to help keep your refrigerated foods safe," added Ball.
Food Lion LLC, a subsidiary of Delhaize America, the U.S. division of Brussels-based Delhaize Group, operates more than 1,200 stores and employs approximately 73,000 associates in 11 Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states.