Hotline Operators Talk Turkey with Desperate Cooks

For more than 20 years, the operators of the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline have heard it all. They share some of their most memorable Thanksgiving calls, including the tale of how one turkey ended up in the washing machine. Food safety specialist Kathy Bernard talks to Debbie Elliott.

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Congress, of course, is now on its Thanksgiving recess, but other members of the federal government are hard at work, notably the staff at the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline. In the world of pre-recorded and computer-generated operators, it's an island of humanity.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Unidentified Female (Hotline Operator): Good morning. Meat and Poultry Hotline. How may I help you?

Unidentified Female #2: I need a question answered.

ELLIOTT: The line is staffed by real people, all experts in food safety. This time of year hotline operators field mainly turkey-related calls. This past week we visited the Meat and Poultry Hotline's offices in Beltsville, Maryland to hear some of their most memorable Thanksgiving-related conversations.

Ms. KATHY BERNARD (Hotline Operator): I'm Kathy Bernard and I've been here on the hotline 15 and a half years. One question last year: we had a young man and he wanted to brine his turkey, which is fine. People say they stay moister if you brine them. It's basically a salt-sugar solution that you soak the turkey in. And it was a large turkey, so he didn't have enough room in a bowl or a bag, and so he decided that, you know, he wanted to use maybe his front-loading washing machine. And he was thinking food safety.

He put the turkey in there, put ice in the brine so the turkey would stay cold. It was a front loader, and thought, well, this is great. You know, I'll brine it for a day and a half or so. And he was going to replenish the ice. And so he goes to bed. The next morning his roommate comes down thinking he was going to do laundry. And the roommate loads his clothes in the laundry and his detergent and his bleach and starts the laundry. Well, lo and behold, there was the turkey in there. Their question to us was, could they still salvage their turkey. You know, it had been tossed with bleach and brine and detergent, and of course the answer is no. We wouldn't recommend using a turkey that had been soaked with bleach. So we did advise them to pick out another turkey.

ELLIOTT: Maybe his roommate had broken into the Thanksgiving wine a little early. More tales from the Turkey Hotline later in the program. If you need it, you'll get the hotline number too.

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