PUBLISHED: 1:37 PM on Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Food storage safety - when in doubt throw it out
What is the safest way to mail perishable food for the holidays?

How can I tell if the home smoked salmon my neighbor gave me as a gift is safe to eat?

How long does it take to cook a 20-pound turkey?

How long can food safely sit out at holiday pot luck parties?

These are but a few of the questions asked by the public that are researched and answered by Marci Johnson, Alaska Home Economics State program assistant. For the past seven years, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service has offered a toll free hotline for providing information regarding food safety and preservation. Currently, a database is used to store both the questions and answers. Dr. Kristy Long, Alaska Statewide Foods and Home Economics Specialist, is using this database to develop a Web site that will serve as a resource for the public.

Johnson claims that questions change significantly depending on the time of year. Questions regarding food preservation follow a seasonal pattern, while food safety questions tend to follow the holidays.

"Springtime starts questions on smoking and canning fish and this can last throughout the summer," Johnson said.

"As the weather becomes warmer, the berries and jam-making questions start. Towards the end of summer come the questions on storing food from the garden, and the fall brings wild game meat questions."

From her location in the Anchorage Cooperative Extension Service office, Johnson has found no quick and easy method for researching questions posed by the public. Some questions are asked so often that the answers are kept on file. Some questions are addressed in CES publications, so it is easy to mail or fax these publications to the caller. However, many of the phone calls do require some degree of research.

"The answer may be as close as the textbook above my head or a quick surf of the Internet. Other times it involves hunting down an expert, which may require a short walk down the hall of the extension offices or a game of phone tag across the state or country."

No matter the technique involved, Johnson takes all the questions seriously and seeks to find a research-based answer or a reputable source of information.

Not all questions have clear-cut answers. In these cases, Johnson provides the facts to the client and leaves the client to decide what to do with the information. When callers want to know if some action they took was a safe food practice, such as in food preservation, there is no way to tell whether the process taken was conducted correctly. Therefore, in most instances, clients are urged to toss out the foods in question.

"It is better to err on the side of safety than to take any health risks," Johnson said.

Sometimes an original question turns out to be part of a bigger issue that needs to be addressed. For example, there are times the question centers around food processing and the only way to find the answer is to walk step-by-step though the procedure.

This method may raise additional questions but, often times, is the most effective way to uncover the answer.

For Johnson, the biggest reward of her job is in helping to find answers for very grateful clients. Additionally, serving as the hotline researcher provides her the benefit of gaining knowledge in many subject areas and gives her an insight as to the needs of CES clients across Alaska.

The holidays are here.

"The holidays offer more specialty foods to cook, more potlucks to attend, and food gifts to give, which brings up more questions on safety than any other time of the year," Johnson said.

So, for your food safety or food preservation question, give Marci a call. She can be reached at the UAF Cooperative Extension Service toll-free hotline, 1-888-823-3663.

In addition to the hotline, there are researched-based responses to Frequently Asked Questions available on the UAF CES Web site. To access this resource, visit the CES home page at Using the links, go to "Home Economics" and then to "FAQs."

You may also submit questions online using the "Ask an Expert" link.

Dr. Koukel is the Juneau District Agent for the Home Economics Programs of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service.