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Government urges home chefs to clean, cook, chill, separate to keep food safe

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WASHINGTON - Clean. Cook. Chill. Separate.

That's the message of a new U.S. government campaign to raise awareness of safe food handling in the wake of a European E. coli outbreak that has killed almost 50 people.

The campaign, launched just before the barbeque-heavy Fourth of July holiday, hopes to remind busy home chefs to clean off surfaces and utensils, wash hands, separate raw meats from other foods, and cook meat to the right temperature, among other safety precautions.

The ad blitz — it will be seen on television, in print, and through social media — is spearheaded by the Ad Council, which is behind other famous government ad campaigns like "Friends don't let friends drive drunk" and Smokey the Bear's efforts to stamp out forest fires.

"This is just a good reminder to make sure that in the rush of trying to get the meal on the table you don't forget one of these rules and put yourself at additional risk," says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people — or one in six Americans — are sickened every year by a foodborne illness. Of that, 180,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. The last several years have seen high-profile outbreaks in peanuts, eggs and produce.

The USDA is launching the campaign this week to get the message out as people plan holiday cookouts. Elisabeth Hagen, head of food safety at USDA, says consumers too often ignore the temperature of meat. Ground beef, which is more prone to pathogens than other cuts of beef, should always be cooked through to 160 degrees Fahrenhei (71 degrees Celsius). Color is not always a reliable indicator.

"The most important thing you can do is buy yourself a meat thermometer and use it," Hagen says.

Government officials hope that the ads will be as successful as previous federal advertising efforts, like those aimed at increasing seat belt use or curbing drunk driving. The ads attempt to use humour to get the message across, including one spot in which a mom orders a chicken to sit on the opposite side of the living room from a bunch of carrots, urging consumers to separate raw meats and other foods.

"We knew we had to break through the clutter and really grab attention and make people understand this is something that can happen to you and your family," said Heidi Arthur of the Ad Council. "People don't necessarily see themselves at risk because they think they are doing enough."

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Online:

Government food safety information: http://www.foodsafety.gov

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