The best defense against salmonellosis and other food-borne diseases is safe food handling. For 20 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has been trying to get that message to consumers.

But changes in the food industry and Americans' eating habits make the job challenging. An estimated 76 million cases of food poisoning occur each year in the United States; some 5,000 are fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) .

To avoid infection at home, you know the drill: Wash hands and utensils after preparing raw meat. Put those hot-off-the-grill burgers onto a clean plate -- not the one that held uncooked meat. Cook food thoroughly and serve hot food hot. Don't thaw meat at room temperature. Scrub produce before slicing it.

For eating out, here are a few other tips:

* Shun any fresh-cooked food that doesn't arrive at your table piping hot. Ditto for any cold food that appears lukewarm.

* Pass up foods containing raw eggs -- a common source of salmonella bacteria. Ceasar salads, hollandaise sauce and French silk pie are among foods that often contain them.

* Order your food cooked to a safe internal temperature. Diane Van, manager of the USDA Meat and Poultry hot line, says she asks for her hamburger cooked to at least 160 degrees -- the recommended temperature. (The hot line fields food safety questions Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 888-MPHOTLINE, or 888-674-6854.)

* Doggie bags may seem a good idea, but chuck any food that you can't refrigerate within two hours. In summer heat, make that one hour.

For more information on safe food handling, see the Web site of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, www.fsis.usda.gov. For information on salmonella poisoning, see www.fsis.usda.gov/oa/background/bksalmon.htm.

-- Susan Morse