Ben Chapman

About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.

Rewashing triple-washed greens at home can only increase risk of foodborne illness

Keeping with the pathogen-in-leafy-greens theme of the night, I buy the triple washed and the never washed types of lettuce. My decision is usually based on how much we’ll consume in the next few days. I rinse the not washed. For the triple-washed type I open the bag and consume.

Stephen Kearse of Slate asks, What does “triple-washed” actually mean? And why do salad-green producers brag about washing their lettuce not twice, not four times, but three times in particular?USC1009846_026

I initially took my questions to salad-green producers themselves. Of the few companies that responded, most were tight-lipped. “We don’t discuss our business practices,” I was told by the PR director of Trader Joe’s, as if I were a rival firm rather than a customer. “Unfortunately we won’t be able to participate with input for your article,” I was told by the communications director of Dole, as if talking about food were beyond the scope of Dole’s business interests.

Earthbound Farms and Ready Pac were less reserved, offering to take some of my questions and answering them through email, but these exchanges were chillingly mediated, routed through an opaque infrastructure of internal approvals. The answers I received seemed like they had been triple-washed themselves, scrubbed of any negative (or meaningful) content. “From planting to harvest, each stage is inspected and audited to ensure it meets our strict food safety standards,” Earthbound told me. “Ready Pac Foods has long been at the forefront of innovation in safety and quality,” I was told by Ready Pac. I knew when I set out to understand “triple-washed” that I was scratching at the surface of ad copy, but I didn’t expect to find more copy underneath.

Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and researcher at North Carolina State University, explained that triple washing is at least partially an aesthetic preparation. Triple washing is “not just a food safety step,” he said. “It’s a quality step as well.” The lettuce and other greens that go into our salads are grown in sprawling fields full of soil, rocks, sand, and dust. Because greens are eaten raw, any of these elements could potentially make it onto a plate. The triple-wash process greatly reduces the chance of this happening, removing “dirt, debris, anything you might find associated with the environment when you’re harvesting lettuce,” Chapman informs me. So one of the reasons salad producers love to tout the triple-washed process is that it really does help ensure the purity of greens.

But that doesn’t mean greens that have been cleaned of debris are necessarily free of dangerous microbes. Where the triple-washed label becomes dicey is at the level beyond visual perception. Triple-washed greens aren’t necessarily washed with water—in fact, they’re generally washed with sanitizers and other compounds that are intended to reduce pathogens, according to the food safety literature. But Chapman says these substances only tend to eliminate 90 to 99 percent of the microbes. “Only” may seem like a strange word choice for such a drastic decrease, but in microbiology, effectiveness is measured in log reductions, which are tenfold, meaning that each log reduction decreases bacteria to 10 percent of their initial number. A 90- to 99-percent decrease is only a one- to two-log reduction. Because pathogens can exist in superabundance, on a microbial level, a one- to two-log reduction means that there are still enough remaining pathogens to cause and spread illness.

And even a fourth or fifth wash would not reliably drive that number down, because some pathogens ensconce themselves inside the grooves of leaves like hermit crabs in shells, finding microscopic coves that are unreachable by liquids. Citing a 2007 paper published in Food Protection Trends, Chapman informs me that washing at home actually increases the risk of contamination because surfaces at home are likely crawling with germs. “I can’t do any better with the tools I have at my home than what the processor did. There’s no net risk reduction potential for me to wash. I am literally not doing anything by washing it at home,” he` dryly reports. The only way to amp up that log reduction would be to apply heat, which will produce a supersafe five- to seven-log reduction but also ruin your salad.

So triple washing is a tortured compromise with an inconvenient reality: Salad greens aren’t particularly conducive to consumer safety. From its structural ability to harbor pathogens, to its inability to withstand heat, to its wide surface area, to the fact that it is processed in large volumes (increasing the risk of cross-contamination), commercial lettuce is as outbreak-ready as a 14th-century marmot.

What prevents frequent outbreaks (or rather what can prevent outbreaks) is the system of practices that begin long before the lettuce is washed thrice. There’s a sprawling matrix of voluntary audits, mandated inspections, legislation, certifications, research, services, and training available to ensure that salad is safe before it reaches a consumer or a wash basin. The practices that this matrix targets vary depending on the size of the farm and even the species of greens, but the general questions are straightforward. Are crops segregated from animal pins? Are compromised crops being discarded? Are workers wearing gloves? Are storage facilities regularly cleaned? Are wash waters coming from a safe source? These questions may seem basic, but asking them and acting on them can be the difference between life and death.

Although this matrix is not fail-safe, Chapman insists, it does have the potential to prevent outbreaks, but only when buyers (retailers and consumers alike) look at the practices underlying passed inspections and growers actually apply those practices on days other than inspection day.

Food Safety Talk 100: No buns in the bathroom

Food Safety Talk, a bi-weekly podcast for food safety nerds, by food safety nerds. The podcast is hosted by Ben Chapman and barfblog contributor Don Schaffner, Extension Specialist in Food Science and Professor at Rutgers University.  Every two weeks or so, Ben and Don get together virtually and talk for about an hour.1459283728049

They talk about what’s on their minds or in the news regarding food safety, and popular culture. They strive to be relevant, funny and informative — sometimes they succeed. You can download the audio recordings right from the website, or subscribe using iTunes.1461946810971

Episode 100 can be found here and on iTunes.

Here is a bulleted list of link to the topics mentioned on the show:

Chipotle’s reputation score goes down

Kinda like some of the adult hockey teams I’ve been on, Chipotle’s reputation, according to Bloomberg, has gone from first to worst.

I don’t know the measures, metrics or scale, so this might fall into the ‘charts and graphs with no science’ category. But like the buzz score, the reputation is dropping.

-1x-1The company’s reputation now ranks below rivals including Moe’s Southwest Grill and Jack in the Box Inc.’s Qdoba, according to a new survey from WD Partners and Nation’s Restaurant News. Last year, Chipotle had the best reputation among Mexican limited-service chains in the U.S.

Canned potato outbreak linked to two deaths in 2015

I really am scared of botulism. Not in an irrational way – I get the risk calculation stuff.

Prevalence is low but consequence is way high. Like months of health problems. Which might lead to death before recovery.ChBGKI-WgAAoAh7

Tragically, the 2015 Lancaster Ohio botulism outbreak claimed a second life (initial reports cited one, Kim Shaw) according to My Fox 28.

A second woman passed away from the botulism contamination that poisoned 21 other people at a church pot luck last year.

The family of Marcella Barbee, 65, said she died in November 2015.

Barbee was a member of Cross Pointe Church and had contracted botulism following the church potluck and suffered from a number of health issues as a result.

A botulism outbreak a year later: ‘It was all just a big accident’

A year ago a group of folks went to a fellowship event at a small town Ohio church; they ate a potluck meal including potato salad.

As the foodborne epidemiologists used to say, ‘it’s always the potato salad’; usually referring to staph toxin outbreaks – where dishes sit out at room temperature either in the preparer’s home, during the transport, or before everyone lines up to eat.DSCF4433

Except usually it isn’t (see our list of community meal outbreaks here).

But this time it was.

But it wasn’t staph; 22 community members got botulism. One died.

A year later, according to Fox 28, the community is still feeling the effects.

“It is more than a dream. It’s a nightmare anybody that lives through it will tell you it is a nightmare,” said Linda Large, whose husband Ben was the first victim diagnosed with botulism. Large credits the good Lord with getting her husband through a year of a debilitating illness.

“Believing in the Lord knowing that he was with me and he carried me through this, that is the only way, no other answer or explanation,” said Ben, 61 who has since retired early due to his health struggles. But the couple is thankful they are still around to enjoy ten grandchildren.

The family of Kim Shaw, 55, who died in the outbreak is still coming to grips with what happened.

Shaw’s husband, Christopher, said he has a new outlook on life after Kim’s passing.

Christopher said every morning he wakes up thinking the botulism outbreak was a dream. “I am patiently waiting for the dream to be over.”

As for the woman who brought the tainted potato salad to the potluck, Shaw said he doesn’t blame her.

“She made that potato salad with love. She canned those potatoes with love. Nothing I could say to that poor lady that would make her feel worse than she already does.”

Victims said they can never thank the community and the hospital workers enough for standing by them. The congregation said the crisis has made them stronger. There have been no more potlucks since the outbreak, but many more things shared.

“This is a family, a church family. It was all just a big accident, and we hope it will never happen again,” said Shaw.

Consumed frozen cherry/berry mix from Costco in Canada? You might have been exposed to hep A

The often-missed Bill Keene was quoted in 2013 about using loyalty cards in an outbreak investigation ‘We rely on people’s memories, which are quite fallible, and on our interviews, which are quite fallible; Shopper club cards are a good source of finding out what people ate.’

Cards can be used to connect with members who purchased specific products if those products are part of an outbreak or recall – a tool to overcome the poor memories.

Lots of data is collected by retailers with every swipe of a loyalty or membership card: date, product, lot, location. CDC reported that the cards aided in an investigation into a 2009 outbreak of Salmonella montevideo linked to pepper (which was used as an ingredient in multiple foods).image

And this frozen cherry/berry hepatitis A outbreak at a Canadian membership retailer in 2013 (sounds familiar).

It’s not failsafe though; folks, who, according to PHAC, sampled frozen berry dishes at Canadian Costco outlets recently, may not know they might have been exposed to hepatitis A.

CBC says go ahead and get an IgG shot at Costco quickly. Because it might not work for too long (based on the window of exposure).

Eastern Health’s chief medical officer David Allison is warning people who have eaten or handled contaminated fruit to get vaccinated within 14 days.

Allison said that one person in the province has contracted hepatitis as a result, but no other cases have been found. Twelve other cases have been identified in provinces across Canada.

According to Costco, approximately 1,600 households in the province have purchased the product.

While vaccines “aren’t easy to come by,” Costco is offering post-exposure immunization to those who have come into contact with the berries.

Add the correct amount of vinegar and check the pH

One of the roles I inherited when I came to North Carolina is organizing the judges for annual home food preservation competition at the State Fair. The fair has a long history in scoring entries based on color, consistency, shapes and in some categories, taste.

According to the fair organizers we’re one of a handful of state fairs that allow judges to taste entries. During the 2014 competition a couple of judges tasted a canned product that was supposed to be pickled. If acidified correctly the safe processing step would be a boiling water bath.

One of the judges, as seasoned veteran of the process said she couldn’t taste any vinegar. We tested the pH was and it was 6.1; a nice environment for bot toxin production.mustard-relish-recall

Someone probably forgot to add the vinegar. And that put a couple of volunteers at risk for a devastating illness.

Sort of sounds like what happened at HardyWares Preserves in Nova Scotia (that’s in Canada).

According to CBC news the small Maritime food processor is pulling their mustard relish from the market because they made a mistake. And didn’t likely add enough vinegar to reduce the chance of botulism.

Larry and Margaret Hardy, from Necum Teuch, are the co-owners of HardyWares Preserves. They sell jams, jellies and relishes that they make in their home kitchen.

Their 250-millilitre bottle of mustard relish, packaged on Dec. 3, 2015, is being recalled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency because the relish could permit the growth of the bacteria that leads to botulism.

“It was a shock, an absolute shock. Because we’ve had nothing of this nature before,” said Larry Hardy.

Hardy said the agency didn’t tell him botulism toxin had been found in the product, but rather that the acid level of the relish was too low — which meant the bacteria could grow.

“It’s definitely human error, but my biggest guess is that I was busy and I was working away, and I probably put in not enough vinegar into the product,” he said.

“Whatever I did, I upset the balance of it.”

The Dec. 3 batch of mustard relish contained 21 jars. Hardy says he has accounted for all but 10. He sold them at the Alderney Landing Farmers’ Market around Christmastime.

Pork-linked Salmonella outbreak led to 192 confirmed illnesses

It’s MMWR day again. My favorite.

A few years ago we conducted a study in commercial kitchens where we acted as food safety voyeurs and watched 47 food handlers do their job for four days.

We counted and coded all the preparation actions we could see (in some kitchens we had 8 camera angles) and there was whole lot of cross-contamination.

One cross-contamination event per food handler.flyer_raw_pig

Per hour.

The MMWR note from the field detailing a 2015 Salmonella outbreak linked to a Washington State pork processor highlights the impacts of lots of cross-contamination.

A total of 192 confirmed cases were reported from five states; 184 (96%) occurred in Washington (Figure). Patients ranged in age from <1 to 90 years (median = 35 years), and 97 (51%) were female. Among 180 patients for whom information about hospitalization was available, 30 (17%) were hospitalized; no deaths were reported.

On the basis of cases investigated before August 2015, a supplemental questionnaire that went into more detail in addressing meat and livestock exposures was developed. Among 80 patients (42% of all confirmed cases) who were interviewed, 59 (74%) reported eating pork during the 7 days preceding illness. This was significantly higher than the most recently published (2007) Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) population survey of healthy persons, in which 43% reported eating pork in the week before they were interviewed (p <0.001) (1).

WADOH and PHSKC investigation into the source of pork traced the pork consumed by 35 (59%) of the 59 interviewed patients who reported eating pork back to a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service–inspected pork slaughter establishment in Graham, Washington. During the outbreak period, the establishment distributed whole hogs and pork parts, primarily from five farms in Montana and one in Washington, to Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Among the 21 interviewed patients who did not report consuming pork before becoming ill, 13 had eaten at one of two restaurants or had shopped at one market where pork from the establishment was served. During June and July 2015, PHSKC inspections of these three facilities identified potential opportunities for cross-contamination of raw pork with other meat and produce, including inadequate employee handwashing and insufficient cleaning and sanitization of food contact surfaces and utensils used for raw meat. Food and environmental sampling by PHSKC at all three facilities yielded the outbreak strains.

There’s a lot of pork cooked and consumed in restaurants across the U.S. daily. And Salmonella in pork is a known issue, but there aren’t reported pork/Salmonella outbreaks every day. My guess is that incoming pork contamination levels were out of the ordinary as well.

Food Safety Talk 99: Are you familiar with the Haugh Unit?

Food Safety Talk, a bi-weekly podcast for food safety nerds, by food safety nerds. The podcast is hosted by Ben Chapman and barfblog contributor Don Schaffner, Extension Specialist in Food Science and Professor at Rutgers University.  Every two weeks or so, Ben and Don get together virtually and talk for about an hour.

They talk about what’s on their minds or in the news regarding food safety, and popular culture. They strive to be relevant, funny and informative — sometimes they succeed. mm_Haugh_Tester-albumen

Episode 99 can be found here and on iTunes.

Don and Ben talk pickles, puppies, Lord Stanley and his cup, the Internet, eggs, coffee, deli slicers and cuisine from around the world. After Dark turns into taxes safety talk.

Below are some links to some of the things that they talked about:

Food Safety Talk 98: Klouty with a chance of meatballs

Food Safety Talk, a bi-weekly podcast for food safety nerds, by food safety nerds. The podcast is hosted by Ben Chapman and barfblog contributor Don Schaffner, Extension Specialist in Food Science and Professor at Rutgers University.  Every two weeks or so, Ben and Don get together virtually and talk for about an hour.1460412459633

They talk about what’s on their minds or in the news regarding food safety, and popular culture. They strive to be relevant, funny and informative — sometimes they succeed. You can download the audio recordings right from the website, or subscribe using iTunes.

Episode 98 can be found here and on iTunes.

This week Don and Ben open with the usual popular culture talk and then move into a discussion of norovirus-laden couches, Chipotle (again), and the safety of petting zoos. From there the discussion moves to lady balls, duck sliders, balls to the wall, and Blue Bell Ice Cream. The After Dark features more cowbell.

Below are some links to some of the things that they talked about: