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New hotline handles food-safety complaints

By Judith Blake
Seattle Times staff reporter
March 23, 2005
The calls run the food-safety gamut:
ï A Seattle-area woman said she’d found walnuts in a packaged, pre-cut salad mix, though nuts were not listed in the ingredients. Her young son, who was severely allergic to walnuts, did not eat any of the nuts, but the woman worried that someone else might have an allergic reaction to the mislabeled product.
ï A man discovered mold on the meat-filled breakfast burrito he’d purchased at a convenience store.
ï A woman was dismayed to find larvae in an energy snack bar.
These are among the calls consumers have made to the new toll-free Food Safety Consumer Complaint Hotline (1-800-843-7890) launched in January by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Goal: to reduce the risk of food-borne illness by making it easier for consumers to lodge complaints and for officials to address them.


Many government agencies — local, state and federal — deal with food-safety complaints, and most have phone numbers and sometimes Web sites where consumers can report problem foods or apparent food-related illnesses.
The stickler for the consumer who opens up a package of mislabeled, spoiled or otherwise safety-flawed food, or who gets sick and suspects some food as the culprit, is knowing whom to call.
The hotline takes food-safety complaints, then refers them to the appropriate agency, said Linda Condon, food-safety program specialist for the agriculture department.
“What we do is take some basic information about the type of product, where purchased and the specific problem,” then make sure the consumer is put in touch with someone who can investigate, she said.
For a complaint involving a milk product or a food-processing plant, one of the agriculture department’s 30 food-safety officers stationed around the state may investigate, contacting the consumer and in some cases visiting the person’s home or the product’s source. Restaurant-related complaints usually go to a county health department.
Other cases may be referred to the State Department of Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture or some other agency. Meat, poultry and eggs, for instance, are regulated by the USDA, which may do the initial investigation in a case related to those products.
Nationally, an estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness occur every year, though far fewer are actually reported because people often don’t realize their symptoms are food-linked, said Janet Anderberg, a food-safety specialist with the Washington State Department of Health. A case of intestinal distress, for instance, may erroneously be attributed to flu instead of salmonella in food.
In Washington, 55 outbreaks of food-borne disease, totaling about 610 individual cases, were recorded in 2003. But since an outbreak officially involves two or more people, and the state doesn’t track individual cases aside from outbreaks, the overall total isn’t known, Anderberg said. However, the individual cases are thought to far outnumber those that are part of recorded outbreaks, she said.
Many organisms found at times in various foods can make people sick, but the most common cases in Washington involve, in order of frequency, campylobacter, salmonella, shigella and E. coli 0157:H7, say state health officials.
Meat-processing plants, food manufacturers, seafood processors, food-transporting trucks, grocery stores and restaurants are only some of the places where food-safety problems can arise. Consumers also need to remember that poor food-storage or food-handling practices at home — for instance, letting food that won’t be cooked touch unwashed surfaces that have held raw meat — can give dangerous organisms a chance to multiply and cause illness, Condon said.
The new hotline, which has not been widely publicized, has received about 30 food-safety complaints since it was launched on Jan. 18, Condon said.
“Before the hotline, we had an average of about one to two calls a week,” she said. “Now we’re getting about two to three calls a week.”