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.

‘Elementary school kids, younger kids probably aren’t the best when it comes to hygiene’

We’ve successfully made it through a couple of months of school in our house without any illnesses. I’m not sure if my kids’ recent obsession with handwashing is a factor (I suspect it is) or whether we’ve just been lucky.

Kids and norovirus are a common pair. Last month an estimated 700 students missed school in Person County, NC with the virus (or stayed home to avoid it; only two cases were confirmed). Today, AP reports that 400 kids in northern Nevada at 11 schools likely have noro.norovirus-2

The Washoe County Health District said it believes the norovirus outbreak first started on Sept. 16 at a Reno elementary school, where 150 students and 11 staff members have reported symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramping.

As of Friday, the Washoe County School District reported that the outbreak had spread to 9 other elementary schools, a high school and some associated daycare centers. It has been centered in Reno, with one Sparks elementary school.

Most of the nearly 400 people affected have been elementary school children. The high school teachers who were sickened also traced their illnesses to the affected elementary school kids, whom they were related to.

“Elementary school kids, younger kids probably aren’t the best when it comes to hygiene,” said Phil Ulibarri, a county health department spokesman.

The school district has also been advised to thoroughly clean schools, which Ulibarri said means sanitizing a 25-foot radius where there is vomiting or diarrhea, including going as high as six feet up along walls.

Awesome, the Nevada folks are using the best available science.

Quasi-daily probe E02: A snapshot in time

My friend and colleague Alyssa Barkley of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association joined me on Episode 2 of the quasi-daily probe. Here’s our conversation in it’s raw, unedited, form.

Today we talked about restaurant inspection, media coverage and posting grades.Quasi-daily-probe

The article that prompted the probe was from the Triangle Business Journal, who put together a list of restaurants in Wake County (where I live) that were cited for five or more  more critical health code violations since the beginning of August. 

Frances Breedlove, who oversees foodservice facility inspections for Wake County, says a critical violation is any rule violation that increases the likelihood of spreading foodborne illnesses. Those can include storing food at the incorrect temperature, employees failing to wash their hands or not keeping cooking areas sufficiently clean.

In all, more than 200 Wake County restaurants were docked for having at least one critical violation. Of those, roughly half were cited for having five or more critical health code violations. Many more were cited for noncritical violations of food safety rules.

Collaboration – The Scientific Love Story

Graduate students Nicole Arnold (NC State) and Lily Yang (Virginia Tech) write (below, exactly as shown),

As Dr. Chapman and Dr. Boyer began to delve into the realm of something called “mechanically tenderized beef,” Lily and Nicole glanced apprehensively at each other from across the table. Feeling dwarfed by the immenseness of the Indianapolis Convention Center amidst the hubbub of the the 2014 International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) Annual Meeting, neither of them could have imagined the adventure they were soon to embark upon. What started as a simple question, “Do you want to work with people?” had quickly blossomed and developed into a mind and story of its own. In a world of sensationalized media and fear-mongering, coupled with consumer beliefs of personal immunity, the study of consumer behavior and knowledge has become an essential step toward developing outreach, education, and intervention methods to positively influence consumer behavior changes. However, leaping into science alone can be a scary venture; having a partner-in-crime at one’s side not only makes the experience more fun and exciting, but much less terrifying.giphy

After months of discussion, the multi-faceted goals of their project, under the USDA NIFA STEC-CAP grant, were finally hashed out. Beginning May 2016, a label would be required for mechanically tenderized beef products due to the potential health risk when not fully cooked. As food scientists, it was important for us to better understand these products and to also recognize how consumers and small-scale retailers perceive them. Nicole (working towards a MS at North Carolina State University, NCSU) would determine the prevalence of mechanical tenderization of beef at independent retail markets in North Carolina and Virginia. Lily (working towards a PhD at Virginia Tech, VT) would assess consumer knowledge and behavior towards mechanically tenderized beef through focus groups, nation-wide surveys, and video observations. From these observations and consumer interactions, intervention methods for affecting behavior would be developed, implemented, then evaluated for effectiveness.

As their project is so incredibly people-oriented, networking and making friends within the food safety world became imperative as many will one day become their colleagues. The importance of partnership and collaboration was emphasized from the moment that Nicole began in the Chapman lab at NCSU and Lily began in the Boyer lab at VT. The combined infectious personalities of Nicole’s charm and Lily’s gregarious nature have allowed them to meet, collaborate, and make friends all across the food science community.

The two first began working together over three years ago, when Nicole was still an undergraduate student at NCSU and Lily was a MS student at VT. At the time, their work together was strictly virtual; they pulled news stories for barfblog, a blog used to discuss evidence-based opinions on current food safety issues by many food safety scientists (check it out here: Many months later at the IFTSA Central Atlantic Area Meeting 2013 at NCSU, Nicole recognized Lily’s incredible loudness while giving the other schools tours of the NC State Howling Cow Dairy. Amidst squeals of excitement and hugs, Nicole also revealed that she would be joining Chapman’s lab for her Master’s studies.

Now, a few years later, Lily and Nicole are great friends. Each has visited the other’s school to work on their shared project; both of their advisors serve on either girls’ committees. Nicole and Lily are frequently involved in many various joint adventures. The two have gone on many adventures at conferences (i.e.: IAFP, IFT, STEC, etc.), in addition to those outside of academia and scientific-related ventures. Recently, Lily took over as the new chair of the IAFP Student Professional Development Group. Nicole serves as the vice-chair. Lily and Nicole were also both accepted into IFT’s first annual Food Communicator’s Workshop in 2015. Along with a group of like-minded young food communicators, they are members of a working group called Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience (You should check them out here on Youtube at and on Facebook at ). This team of students works towards effectively communicating food, science, and all aspects of Food Science through videos, social media, and other prominent channels.

Together, Nicole and Lily hope to share their own positive experiences working with one another and with other students in order to promote more collaboration and teamwork among students interested in food science and food safety. Acknowledging that your own limitations may be another individual’s expertise is essential. The diversity within food science and food safety is something to celebrate. After all, every great adventure begins with two.

Fortune looks at the business of food safety and Blue Bell

Powell has often used the term, making people sick is bad for business; or as Fortune Magazine alliterates, the food industry has a $55.5 billion problem. Peter Elkend and Beth Kowitt of Fortune published sister pieces on the intersection of food safety and business focusing on Blue Bell’s recent listeria outbreak and re-entry to the marketplace.

Kowitt writes,

Food-borne illness is a giant, expensive challenge for companies big and small—and the surprise is, their exposure to the risk (and the liability when linked to an outbreak) is arguably bigger than ever. “Thirty years ago if you had a little problem, you were not going to get discovered,” says David Acheson, former associate commissioner for foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who today runs a consulting firm. “Now the chances of getting caught are significant, and it can be the end of your company.”acf7763f-9190-4bd1-8e69-ae99293596d0

For instance, since 2006 investigators have fingered a bacterial strain called E. coli O157:H7 (at one time widely thought to be found only in meats) in bags of baby spinach, in hazelnuts, and in cookie dough. They’ve identified botulism in pasteurized carrot juice and found salmonella in peanut butter, ground pepper, jalapeño peppers, Turkish pine nuts, and pistachios. They’ve discovered hepatitis A virus in pomegranate seeds; cyclospora in bagged salad mix; and Listeria monocytogenes in ice cream.

“I’m skeptical that these are new connections,” says Ben Chapman, associate professor of food safety at North Carolina State University, who runs a website called the Barfblog (I meant new pathogen/food contamination -ben). “It’s stuff that’s always been there, and now we’re looking for it.” That would help explain why FDA-regulated food recalls have more than doubled over the past decade, to 565 last year, according to insurance company Swiss Re—with nearly half related to microbiological contamination. In interviews with more than 30 experts, nearly all said the rise in recalls was less an indicator of deteriorating food safety than it was of our improving capacity to connect the dots between foods and microbes.

Molecular techniques (PFGE to whole genome sequencing) also get a shout out from friend of barfblog, Linda Harris.

Up until the 1990s, most outbreaks we found were in the same geographic location—the church picnic where everyone eats the same bad potato salad and calls in sick the next day. Then new technology enabled scientists to determine the various DNA fingerprints of food-borne bacteria, which were uploaded into a common database. Investigators were suddenly able to link disparate cases of illness by finding bacterial matches. “It revolutionized outbreak investigation,” says Linda Harris, a microbiologist in the department of food science and technology at the University of California at Davis.

Whole genome sequencing is the biggest advance I’ve seen in my 15 years in food safety.

In the Blue Bell piece, Peter Eklund writes,

The episode reveals not only how difficult it is to trace the source of food-borne illness but also what happens when a company is slow to tackle the causes—and doesn’t come clean with its customers. Experts say Blue Bell’s responses this year were an example of “recall creep.” That occurs when executives hope that taking limited action—as the company did five times when informed of findings of listeria—will solve the problem and minimize commercial damage, only to find themselves forced to expand the recall repeatedly. It’s the opposite of Johnson & Johnson’s actions in the 1982 Tylenol-tampering episode, when the brand famously saved its reputation by swiftly recalling every bottle of the medication.

blue-bell-ice-cream-600Eklund and I spoke a lot about Blue Bell’s sharing of information specifics, which I’ve criticized as lacking. When a company is linked to illnesses and deaths and they say stuff like ‘food safety is important to us’ or ‘we’re going to step up what we are doing around microbiolgical sampling, cleaning and sanitation’ or ‘we’re hiring the best’ it often lacks substance. Sure, tell folks what you are doing but more important is pulling back the curtain on how many samples, what they are looking for, how they determined where and what to look for and what they are going to do if they find an issue. That’s what we mean by marketing food safety.

But Eklund quotes Gene Grabowski, a PR consultant involved in Blue Bell’s response as playing the we’re sorry and trust us game,

“In my playbook, you apologize sincerely once and then you move on.” (He has been supplanted by a team from PR giant Burson-Marsteller led by Karen Hughes, who served as a top White House communications adviser to George W. Bush.) “Had the company known then what it knows now,” Grabowski says, “it would have done a full recall of all products earlier than it did.”

Two decades into the world of online discussions, immediate news exchange, and Twitter flame wars and some are still sadly following the apologize and move on approach.

The quasi-daily probe E1: The okra of the sea

My friend Mike Batz of University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogen Institute and I were chatting a while back and thought it would be cool to connect for short podcasts when there was something fun going on. Here’s the first episode (and maybe the last) in it’s raw, unedited, short format.Daily-probe

Today we talked about oysters, raw and steamed, Vibrio, norovirus, burden and risk-based messaging.

The article that prompted the probe was from Lifezette where oysters are referred to as those scary shellfish.

Heads up, raw oyster lovers. New research from China shows the bivalves not only transmit human norovirus, they also serve as a reservoir for the harmful and highly contagious virus.

In an expansive study published recently in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology, scientists discovered that more than 80 percent of the known noroviruses matched those found in oysters.

Even common recommendations for reducing the risks of illness, such as avoiding them from warm-water sources, aren’t a guarantee you won’t get sick, food safety expert Ben Chapman told LifeZette.

“Considering where they’re from, and not eating them at a certain time of year, may reduce the risk, though risk is always there,” said Chapman, a researcher at North Carolina State University. Chapman also notes that cooking oysters may lower risk, but that steaming — a popular way to prepare them — isn’t likely to get them above 140 degrees.

Listen to the episode here.

Someone I know posted this on Facebook today: carrots being sold from a truck

Names and locations have been changed to protect, uh, identities.


So many questions.

Where did the carrots come from? Where did they go? How was $20 arrived at as the price? Does this fit into someone’s food safety plan?

In unrelated news, CDC estimates that about half of the foodborne illness in the U.S. is attributed to produce.

Food Safety Talk 80: Literally the hummus I’m eating

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. You can download the audio recordings right from the website, or subscribe using iTunes.1442690399236

The show opens with a discussion of Don’s mic stand and quickly segues into “Linda’s Famous Cigar Story”, and Ben’s annual pollen throat. After a discussion of their various ailments, Don wishes Ben an almost 37th birthday.

Ben is currently expecting a new macbook, which was discussed on Episode 116 of the Talk Show. Don shares his recent experiences looking at Apple Watch in the Apple Store, and his preference for the Milanese Loop and his new burr grinder and aeropress.

When the talk turns to food safety, Ben talks about his work with Family & Consumer Sciences in North Carolina, (called Family and Community Health Sciences at Rutgers University) and how Ben has recently changed his training practices from classroom lecture to supermarket and restaurant inspection field trips based on inspiration from Dara Bloom.

This inspires Don to talk about the work he’s doing to help documentary film makers doing a story on shelf life dating of foods especially milk. Ben shares some of the myths circulating about expired milk including this bogus article from Livestrong, and the work he’s doing on expired food and food pantries.

From there the discussion moves to other shelf life myths including the egg float or shake tests, and why they are bogus, as well as places to go for good egg information, because someone on the Internet will always be wrong.

The discussion turns to recalled hummus recall messaging and Ben’s post hockey snacking tips.

As the guys wrap up the show they briefly talk about Blue Bell ice cream and the doses of Listeria that might have made people sick and the future of food safety given the advances in molecular biology, clinical microbiology and whole genome sequencing. Ben shares some final thoughts on Salmonella in spices and how whole genome sequencing might impact that industry too.

In the brief after dark, Ben and Don talk about yoga, and getting healthy, the Turing Test, and the new Star Wars movie trailer.

Person County NC has a lot of norovirus

Or so it seems.

CBS is reporting that almost 700 students, about 14% of the district, missed school today due to gastro illnesses that appear to be from norovirus, according to CBS News.

Superintendent Danny Holloman said there were 668 absences in the district Thursday, or 14 percent of the student population. Most of the absences came from Person High School, where more than 300 students stayed home.10849902_719581291471357_3442145704847569295_n1-300x3001-300x300

Holloman said it’s not known how many students are actually sick and how many stayed home as a precaution.

CBS Raleigh affiliate WRAL reports Holloman realized something was going around just before lunch time yesterday, when large numbers of students were going home sick.

According to the Person County Health Department, a local doctor’s office experienced a similar situation with several patients and staff members coming down with virus-like symptoms last week. The North Carolina Division of Public Health asked that samples be collected from students to use for testing. The samples will be tested for both norovirus and other enteric pathogens, officials said.

Students roll out Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience project

Earlier this week I spent some time with NC State’s Food Science Club and told some stories about how I got into the food safety nerd world. One of the career-shaping experiences in my past (that I didn’t share) was making a Jon Stewart correspondent-type video with Christian Battista at Biojustice 2002.

We talked to lots of folks about their perceptions, concerns and understanding of GE foods and it gave me some hands-on experience in risk communication. The video led to some writing, which led to some criticism of putting out evidence-based opinions.

A couple of food science students I know, Nicole Arnold and Lily Yang (and others), are jumping into the communicating food risk world and put together a much slicker introductory video to a project they’re calling Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience.

I’m looking forward to their next steps as they do their own engaging with the passionate eaters of the world.

And here’s my YouTube debut from 13 years ago.

Freezing isn’t a good preventive control for raw fish sushi

I like sushi, the raw fish kind, but I’m picky about where I eat it, and with each outbreak I’m becoming more apprehensive about consuming it

When I do choose the raw fish-dish, I ask about whether it’s sushi grade and was previously frozen (to take care of the parasitic worms). I stay away from ground tuna or back scrape (which I learned about after a 2012 Salmonella outbreak) since lots of handling and small pieces can increase my risk of foodborne illness. tuna_roll1-300x196

Lydia Zuraw of NPR’s food blog, The Salt writes about a sushi-linked outbreak earlier this year, and points out that freezing isn’t good a Salmonella control measure.

The outbreak in question began in California in March. All told, it sickened 65 people in 11 states. There were 35 cases in California, with another 18 in Arizona and New Mexico. The rest of the cases were scattered across the country, including four in Minnesota.

So if pathogens like Salmonella don’t usually contaminate fish, what went wrong with the sushi tuna in this case? The FDA tells The Salt it doesn’t know for sure. Maybe someone in the processing facility didn’t wash their hands. Maybe the water or equipment used in processing was contaminated. Or maybe a bird or rodent got into the fish on the boat or during the ride to the processing facility. There are many opportunities for contamination to occur between capture and processing.

Ironically, freezing is usually considered a way to make sushi safer, because it kills any parasitic worms living in the raw fish flesh. That’s why last month, New York Citybegan requiring sushi restaurants to freeze their fish before serving it. Many of the city’s top sushi spots have been freezing their raw fish for this very reason for years.

But as this case highlights, freezing doesn’t guarantee your sushi is pathogen-free. While freezing will slow down the growth of Salmonella, cooking or pasteurizing are the only ways to kill the bacteria.