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Cartoon character enlisted in campaign for food safety at home

(ran SP, ST, TP editions)

A green germ cartoon character is the lighthearted centerpiece of a serious new effort to educate consumers about ways to protect against food-borne illness at home.

The campaign, paid for mostly by about $550,000 from the food industry, is called "Fight BAC," a reference to a glob-like character that will be shown trying to spread contamination throughout a kitchen.

"The BAC character puts a face on food-borne bacteria, which we believe will help Americans remember that they have the power to control bacteria in their home kitchens," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

The most sophisticated testing and screening of food cannot guarantee that it is free of harmful microbes, demonstrated by this summer's recall of 25-million pounds of ground beef tainted with E. coli bacteria and by other events involving meat, berries and vegetables.

"Even as industry and government step up their food safety activities, consumers need to understand that they are the last line of defense in assuring the safety of the foods they eat," Shalala said.

Food-borne pathogens such as E. coli, campylobacter, listeria and salmonella cause up to 9,000 deaths and 33-million illnesses a year, according to the Agriculture Department.

The four steps to be stressed are:

Wash hands and table surfaces often.

Prevent cross-contamination between foods.

Cook foods to the proper temperatures.

Refrigerate food promptly.

Along with the TV ads will be posters, store brochures and even refrigerator magnets stressing the anti-bacteria principles. There is also an Internet web site ( that will offer the latest news and tips on food-borne illness and food safety.

The food industry, buffeted in recent months by stories of problems caused by bacteria, sees consumer education as more important in preventing illnesses than increased government enforcement powers to recall products and punish companies.

"You do need to remember to take some basic precautions," said Sara Lilygren, senior vice president for legislative and public affairs at the American Meat Institute.