by Marion Nestle
Jun 29 2011

USDA’s new food safety campaign: it’s all about YOU

Yesterday, USDA announced its new Food Safe Families campaign to get you to pay attention to food safety procedures in your kitchen.  These, as always, are:

  1. Clean: Clean kitchen surfaces, utensils, and hands with soap and water while preparing food.
  2. Separate: Separate raw meats from other foods by using different cutting boards.
  3. Cook: Cook foods to the right temperature by using a food thermometer.
  4. Chill: Chill raw and prepared foods promptly.

The media campaign, which reportedly cost $2 million, comes with a graphic that can’t be all that expensive:

So what is the $2 million for?  According to Food Chemical News (June 28):

The campaign, which will feature public service announcements in English and Spanish, centers on “humorous over-the-top depictions of the four key safe food handling behaviors”….The campaign will include ads on television, radio, print and websites, along with an integrated social media program.

As it happens, a reader sent me the preliminary “concept” version of this campaign (thank you kind reader).   Trust me, this campaign is worth a look, and Food Safety News has some of the videos.

Here’s my favorite concept:

Yes, this is a baby pig in a sauna.  Humorous maybe, but how will it convince anyone to clean up the kitchen?

Two other points:

  • None of the concepts seem to have anything to do with food.
  • All of them are about your responsibility for food safety.

But the big national outbreaks we’ve been experiencing lately are from foods that are already contaminated by the time they get to you.  Following food safety procedures makes good sense, but that’s not where the problem lies.  They would not help you much with contaminated raw sprouts, for example, unless you cook them (not a bad idea these days).

To stop food safety problems at their source, we need a functional food safety system.  This means rules that require all producers to follow food safety procedures and a government with the authority and resources to make sure they do.

Will we ever get a food safety system like this?  And how bad will things have to get before we do?


  • I know what you mean but how can we ever prevent lazy or unscrupulous (greedy) people from supplying things that should be thrown away?

    You’re right. Most people who cook know the rules about food safety. We get sick from the food we buy.

  • My guess is that the nice graphic could have been released with much less fan fare. I’m not sure the pig in the sauna vignette is worth the $$$.

    I do not agree that most people who cook know specifics about food safety. We probably will never get reliable numbers on the amount of food related illness from our kitchens–no one is reporting the “24 hour bug” they got last week. The only incidents that hit the radar are ones where larger numbers are involved, ie: community pot lucks and family reunions.

    The bigger issue remains industrialized food production. We need to celebrate the players who are exemplary; we need to know those who value low cost and profits over everything. If they are informed, consumers can influence the marketplace with their dollars. How is USDA addressing these challenges?

  • Anthro

    I don’t cook a lot of meat, but have never used separate cutting boards–I have a butcher block and can’t imagine two of them! But I DO wipe it off after each use. Who chops the onion in the hamburger blood?

    I don’t own a meat thermometer–never have in 40 years of homemaking. I sometimes use those little things you put in the turkey that pop out when it’s done, but can manage without them. Unless you like very rare meat, this doesn’t seem a huge problem.

    I don’t have a dishwasher (by choice), so my hands get wet and soapy all the time. I think they would even if I had a dishwasher.

    I put stuff in the fridge within a reasonable time frame, but not when it’s steaming hot.

    These kinds of “guidelines” if taken literally and always followed to the letter, would turn the kitchen into a rather regimented place. People who most need to know the basics of hygiene are probably least likely to pay attention to PSA’s anyway. Nowhere does any of it tell you anything about the basic biology behind the warnings–and shouldn’t any fifth grader know this?

    You hit on the really aggravating thing–They want us to think it’s OUR fault if we get sick!

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  • What a stupid ad campaign! Hope they don’t really use it. Folks will inevitably focus on the weird (big hands, for ex) and miss the food safety message (which is pretty hard to pull out from the distracting background).

    Better if they’d just showed people of all ages and circumstance being visibly sickened and even dying- interspersed with clearly deciphered good models of food safety at home.

    @Anthro- many folks have said to me “I don’t need to do all that- I wipe down the cutting board after use. And I’ve never been sick!”….. It only takes once! Well, it’s not hard to at least put down a piece of waxed paper on your butcher block before slicing the tomatoes for your sandwich!

    And….. point taken about too much regulation- NO ONE is going to wash pots, pans and utensils BEFORE use. It’s just unrealistic to expect that of people who have a one-size-fits-all cutting surface. Emphasis should have been placed on the basics.

  • Charlie L

    A more effective approach for the USDA would have been something like “We don’t actually regulate or enforce the safety of your food, so it really is on YOU to be more pro-active!”

  • Interesting. My guess is that agribusiness has an interest in reframing food safety issues as one of personal responsibility, rather than one that is inherently associated with an industrial food system. They are deflecting scrutiny.

    By the way, I am in disagreement that the answer is in further regulating the current food system. In my opinion, strengthening parallel local and regionalized food systems, and encouraging more community ownership of food production, processing and consumption is the way to go. The current agri-industrial food system is faulty at it’s core. It’s inherently broken. Trying to fix it with more regulations is a band-aid solution.

  • With all the focus on slutwalks lately, and controversy about women’s dress & behaviour as a factor in rape prevention, it occurs to me that the area of food safety is eerily similar.

    This $2million campaign (and others that precede it) serves to subtly shift the burden of food safety to the consumer.

    In the same way that it’s probably not smart for me (a woman) to walk along a dark road late at night alone, I have no problem following the food safety guidelines above. At the same time, I would rather the problem was addressed closer to its source.

    Backyard gardens, buying from farmers’ markets and farmers themselves, and reducing (or eliminating) one’s dependence on industrially processed foods are also sensible steps to avoid problems. How about allocating public funding to promoting these instead?

  • While I agree that this doesn’t address the significant concerns about supply-end safety, I do think that the humour in the adverts is significant progress. No, the visuals don’t address food safety, but the audio does, and we know that a large number of people learn better through having humour mixed with message; the laughing at the pig in the sauna makes the audio message of food safety “sticky.”

    Now, that assumes the voiceover is accurate, useful, etc – and my speakers are blown, so I didn’t get a chance to listen, so it is speculation on my part for that side of things. Still, making a message sticky does work.

  • This whole things makes me so angry! As Marion wrote (and others echoed in the comments), it’s so frustrating that “All of them are about your responsibility for food safety.”

    It doesn’t even matter that my house is totally clean and that I don’t eat meat; it seem there is potential for almost all our national food to become contaminated because the faulty food system that values profit and ‘convenience’ over quality and safety. HOW is it possible that the USDA can use that much money on a campaign to encourage us to clean up their messes? What better use could $2million go towards: actual USDA safety inspections in factories? Runoff disaster mitigation for CAFOs? Creating strict cleanliness measures for meat production so we can keep the poop off the meat in the first place- before it gets into my sprouts and spinach???

  • “What better use could $2million go towards: actual USDA safety inspections in factories? Runoff disaster mitigation for CAFOs? Creating strict cleanliness measures for meat production so we can keep the poop off the meat in the first place- before it gets into my sprouts and spinach???”

    IMO, Andrea, you are suggesting fixes to a system that can’t be fixed. Would you entertain the possibility that food just shouldn’t be treated like an industrial product? You don’t regulate your way out of something this is rotten at its core. So, in answer to your question…no, that 2 million is not better spent doing the things you suggest. That, too, is a waste of money.

  • Thank you for always keeping us so well informed!

    Last summer there a recall of over 500,000,000 (that’s half a billion) eggs from two factory farms in Iowa because salmonella bacteria in the eggs may have sickened as many as 1,300 people.

    And…29 People in 14 states diagnosed with salmonellosis – ConAgra Recalls Frozen Chicken Products

    And…Campbell Soup recalled approximately 15,000,000 pounds of “SpaghettiOs with Meatballs” and…

    The USDA needs to fix our food supply…not dinner! The food is contaminated before it leaves the supermarkets.

    Best health always!

  • Cathy Richards

    I love the draft campaign. I think it is just wonky enough to get attention and spur conversation, while still being reasonably grounded.

    My only concern: dad is barbecuing meat or playing baseball, while mom is in the kitchen dealing with veggies, or at the playground or at the laundromat/doing dishes or getting groceries. Groan. This archaic “traditional” roles aspect of the draft campaign is insulting. All evidence points to men taking a larger role in parenting, food prep and household chores. An ad campaign needs to reflect the important roles that Dads play at home.

  • Eric Esterling, MS RD

    “the big national outbreaks we’ve been experiencing lately are from foods that are already contaminated…”

    Big National outbreaks aren’t an important statistic in the scheme of food borne illness. Current estimates is that there are over 48 million infections a year. ( )

    There are typically nearly 1500 outbreaks large enough to be reportable to the CDC per year. In total, they affect under 30,000 people per year. ( , ) That is far less than one percent of food borne illnesses.

    On the other hand, the largest percentage of food borne illnesses are caused in the home. They are generally preventable with the Separate-Clean-Cook-Chill techniques taught in the program. Food borne illness costs 6.9 billion per dollars year ( ) and personal hygiene and basic food safety habits can have a big impact on reducing that cost. If the program results in a mere 1% reduction in food borne illness, it will pay for itself over 30 times.

  • An additional thought on last year’s 500,000,000 (that’s half a billion) factory farmed egg recall:

    According to Food Production Daily, The FDA is responsible for egg safety when eggs are still in the shell, but the USDA takes over once they are broken. In addition, the FDA is in charge of chicken feed safety, while the USDA is responsible for the chickens. [Meanwhile] …the division of responsibilities between agencies was highlighted again last summer during the recall of more than half a billion eggs from two Iowa egg producers, thought to have sickened at least 1,900 people.

    Meanwhile…as long as we cook the eggs from the sick chickens we’re okay? I no longer buy factory farmed eggs. My families health is worth a few more bucks.

    Best health always!

  • Anthro

    @Eric Easterling

    I can’t argue with your facts, and it does matter that most food borne illness is caused in the home. The fact that it hasn’t happened to me isn’t relevant. Public Health is about everyone, not just me–as I have so often argued in this space. So, thank you for the facts and I shall take all necessary precautions before eating my crow.

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  • Henry

    While humor is a proven way to sell, I don’t think it’s the way to go with this campaign. Consumers need information on food safety, not funny/cute images. Would an image of a baby pig in a sauna really make one think about food safety? More likely it would bring a smile to their face and not leave any kind of lasting impression.

  • Auralee

    You are correct, the big national outbreaks with already-contaminated food have gotten a lot of attention. And this campaign is aimed at the household cook but that doesn’t mean it is missing the mark. But surely household cooks, not to mention individual restaurants, are still responsible for small, unreported, outbreaks. Do we have any stats on the magnitude of those? Meaning the onsies and twosies. I assume we do not.

    My Mom was once in misery for about 2 weeks after eating at a restaurant. We never reported it, we just nursed her, and never made the connection until we found out much later that several other members of her senior group were sick too. No one was the wiser. Raw chicken near the salad? Who knows.

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