November 14, 2014 - 2:20pm --

For the first time, consumers can reach a food safety hotline at Ohio State University by e-mail:

Thanks to a partnership between The Kroger Co. and the Center for Innovative Food Technology (CIFT), Ohio State's Food Safety Hotline -- 1-800-752-2751 (toll-free in Ohio) -- has had trained students answering calls from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday since July. Before that, callers usually would leave a message unless a faculty member was immediately available to assist. The hotline has been available since 1985 and is housed in the university's Food Industries Center, in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Hotline coordinator Stephanie Smith, a food scientist with CIFT, and other faculty and staff involved with the hotline realized that many of the people who called didn't have easy access to the Internet. That's when they began thinking: What about the people who do have such access? Since many people prefer to get information electronically, they decided to add the e-mail address to the hotline options, offering consumers another option for easily accessible information and answers to their food safety questions.

The address has just been launched. Questions e-mailed to that address will automatically go to the students answering hotline questions as well as a group of faculty members studying different aspects of food safety from the Department of Food Science and Technology, the Department of Human Nutrition, the Food Industries Center, and Ohio State University Extension.

"One of the great things about the hotline is that it is drawing together faculty with food-safety expertise from across the university," said Lydia Medeiros, food safety specialist for OSU Extension and professor of human nutrition in the College of Education and Human Ecology. "We're all putting something on the table, and we're working together much more closely than we have in the past."

Although food-safety information is widely available on the Internet, particularly on the Web sites of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Medeiros said they can be difficult to navigate, particularly in trying to find specific information. That's where the hotline -- both phone and e-mail -- can help.

In their downtime, the students answering questions on the hotline are developing a comprehensive database of food-safety related questions and answers to draw upon in answering future questions. That will be another advantage of the hotline, Medeiros said: "Some food safety Web sites only give their own perspective in answering questions, but, sometimes, there's conflicting information regarding food safety. Since we're independent of those agencies, we can be frank with consumers and offer broader, more comprehensive information."

Besides Medeiros, principal investigators involved in the project are Ken Lee, director of the Center for Food Safety and AgroSecurity, and Valente Alvarez, director of the Food Industries Center. Both Lee and Alvarez are also professors of food science and technology.