Let your fingers do the walking to food information 1-800 HELP

February 24, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

The bread won't rise. The biscuits won't brown. The Jell-O won't jell and the dog seems to be gaining too much weight on her current kibble. No problem. You need a recipe for lasagna, you want to know how they got the caffeine out of the coffee, whether smooth or chunky peanut butter is better for you, whether microwave bacon can be cooked in the oven, how long ice cream will keep in a freezer during a blackout. Don't worry.

All the answers are at your fingertips. Just pick up the phone and dial 1 (800) . . . . The number is right there on the label.

The range of labels that bear such numbers is astonishing: flour and vegetable oil, cake mixes and baking soda, bottled water and soda, corn chips and macaroni and cheese, spaghetti sauce and spaghetti, bacon and cereal, soup and coffee, ice cream and snack cakes -- and even pet food. And that's not all: There are 800 lines operated by industry, trade and government groups to make sure consumers can always get their nutrition, health and safety questions answered.

"Eight-hundred numbers are definitely on the rise," said Lou Garcia, director of the Virginia-based Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business (SOCAP). "There's one very simple reason: It offers an easier way for customers to complain or ask questions."

What do consumers call about?

They ask Nabisco Brands about the wheat content in cereal, Procter & Gamble why a Duncan Hines cake didn't rise, ConAgra how to use Healthy Choice egg substitutes in cooking, Del Monte whether a snack fruit is kosher, Sara Lee if they can fry a frozen pie, Pillsbury if they need low-altitude cooking directions in New Orleans, the Perrier Group of America how much sodium its bottled water contains, Heinz Pet Products why the cat suddenly turns up its nose at its food and Ragu why there weren't more chunks in the "chunky-style" sauce. They ask the Olive Oil Information Hotline -- to the dismay of its director, Lynne Hill -- how much cholesterol there is in the oil. (Vegetable oils do not contain cholesterol.)

As many as 2,500 people call Pillsbury on a busy day; that's nearly a million calls a year. Nabisco reports 1,500 to 2,500 calls a day. Heinz Pet Products gets 50,000 calls a year, Kraft General Foods gets half a million.

Some of the questions are strange -- an ovenless man in Arizona asked Sara Lee if he could "cook" a frozen pie on a hot driveway, and a woman in a high-rise asked Procter & Gamble if she needed to use high-altitude baking directions. But most are serious queries by people concerned about the food they eat.

"We're finding there's very much a trend [of] people asking nutritional questions about our products," said Don Mayer, director of Kraft General Foods consumer response and information center in White Plains, N.Y.

"We get a lot of questions about cholesterol and fat content in products."

"I think people are very aware and they want to be more informed," said Caroline Fee, manager of corporate communications for Nabisco in Parsippany, N.J.

Ms. Hill, of the olive oil line, said consumers are more aware of nutrition and health issues, "but they're not a whole lot more informed."

People with specific dietary needs, such as those who've been told by their doctors to cut back on fat or salt, often ask about information on the label, said Jane Lazgin, a representative of Perrier in Greenwich, Conn. "They just want to double check."

The companies try to adjust their information to fit consumer needs. Janet Acklam, director of consumer affairs for Del Monte Foods of San Francisco, said, "When people ask very specific questions on dietary issues, we have agencies, like the American Dietetic Association, to refer them to."

Consumer representatives who answer the phones at ConAgra have 4,000 computer screens full of information to draw on. Consumer concerns "show up based on what the media is

talking about at the minute," said Pat Quarles, manager of public relations for the Omaha, Neb.-based company. "If the media is talking about salt, we have 15 screens of salt to answer questions."

Bessie Berry, a home economist and hot line supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline, also cited a media connection. "People are far more sophisticated than when we opened the hot line in 1983." (The line went toll-free in 1985.) "They know the scientific names of bacteria and they base their questions on something they've read about or heard about."

Most of the 800 lines are open eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week. Some companies have longer hours; Gerber answers questions about baby products 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- including Christmas. Kraft General Foods will answer questions about Post cereals from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.

"Our goal is to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Mr. Mayer said. "We truly want to serve the consumers when they need us."

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