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.

Don’t Trust Your Waiter for Food Safety Advice

Matt Shipman, Research Communications Lead at NC State News Services and contributor to The Abstract (and all-around great guy) writes,

I went out for lunch recently at an upscale restaurant. Other guests wore suits, there was an extensive wine list, and the server was extremely upbeat. What she didn’t know, and I did, was that my guest for lunch was a food safety expert – and her tableside manner was being judged.

Shortly after being seated, my dining companion pointed to the bottom of the menu.

“Consuming undercooked meats may increase risk of foodborne illness,” said Ben Chapman, a food safety researcher at NC State. “It’s right there on the menu. Now let’s see if the server follows through.”hamburger-blog-2016-header-992x558

When the server returned, Chapman ordered a medium-rare hamburger. The server didn’t mention anything, so Chapman asked how the restaurant knew whether the burger would be safe to eat.

The server said that the cooks could tell whether the hamburger was safe by feeling how firm the burger was, and noted that lots of people order medium-rare hamburgers and don’t get sick. Chapman changed his order to well-done anyway, and the server left to get our drinks.

“This,” Chapman said, “is basically everything that can go wrong with how restaurant servers share food safety information with consumers: the menu gives patrons vague, but accurate, information. And the server gave us information that’s inaccurate and not based on the science.”

And Chapman knows what he’s talking about – he just published a paper evaluating how restaurants handle food safety communication, based on the experiences of “secret shoppers” at 265 different restaurants scattered across the United States. You can read more about that paper here.

So what does make a hamburger safer?

  • Cooking hamburgers to 155°F for 15 seconds or 160°F (for an instant kill).
  • Restaurants are required to cook to these temperatures in many jurisdictions unless requested to do otherwise by a customer.
  • Restaurants should have thermometers in the kitchen; if they don’t, you may want to reconsider your dining choice.
  • Don’t trust color (no red or pink) as an indicator of safety.
  • Just because the juices are “running clear” doesn’t mean the burger has reached a safe temperature.
  • The touch, feel or look of the meat are not reliable ways of determining how well cooked the hamburger is.

The study, which was performed by a team of researchers from NC State and RTI International, is published in the Journal of Food Protection.

Study: Restaurants Not Good At Explaining Risks of Undercooked Meat to Customers

When I was eleven my parents took me to Disney World in Florida. I don’t remember much about the trip other than we rode space mountain, went to Epcot, and did the backlot tram tour at what was then called MGM Studios.

And I remember the burger I had one night at a restaurant on International Drive.24235f1049c18d3d50fd3c0017886141

It was the juiciest, tastiest burger I had ever had.

It was really undercooked, I ordered it medium rare.

I don’t think ordering burgers undercooked was an option in Ontario. I had never been offered a choice before.

No one told me or my parents that there was increased risk of illness eating undercooked meat. Maybe there was a consumer advisory on the menu. But probably not, I don’t remember seeing it. This was 1989, before Jack-in-the-Box. After McDonalds in 1982.

While golfing at IAFP in 2005, Doug and I were in line for burgers in-between the front and back nine. The cook asked the group in front of us how they wanted their burgers. One guy responded, “Bloody … with cheese.”

No one said anything about the risks.

Over the next nine holes we talked about servers as risk communicators, figuring out what they knew, what they said and how to get better information to patrons.

Years later, as part of a USDA CAP grant my former PhD student and current Food Safety Scientist at RTI International, Ellen Thomas, would lead the first part of this work and found that servers aren’t great at helping folks makes informed decisions. That paper was publish today.

NC State University’s press release about the paper is below.

Front-line staff, such as servers in restaurants, are often trusted with providing customers with food safety information regarding their meals.  A challenge to the industry is that these positions have high turnover, relatively low wages and servers are focused primarily on providing patrons with a positive experience. And new research shows that this poses a problem.

A recent study finds that restaurants don’t do an effective job of communicating with customers when it comes to addressing risks associated with eating undercooked meat – specifically hamburgers. Inaccurate information provided by servers often contradicts science-based information customers need to make informed food safety decisions.

All 50 states in the U.S. have adopted some version of the Food & Drug Administration’s Model Food Code, which requires restaurants to tell customers about risks associated with undercooked meat and poultry products. Such as hamburgers.

“We wanted to know how well restaurant servers and menus communicated with customers about these risks, specifically in the context of beef hamburgers,” says Ben Chapman, co-author of a study on the work and an associate professor at North Carolina State University whose research program is aimed at improving food safety.

The researchers focused on beef hamburgers because consuming undercooked ground beef has been linked to a lot of foodborne illness outbreaks, including outbreaks related primarily to Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.

For this study, the researchers sent trained “secret shoppers” into 265 full-service, sit-down restaurants in seven different regions around the U.S. At each restaurant, the patrons ordered one well-done hamburger and one medium-rare hamburger to go. The shoppers then recorded how, if at all, the restaurant communicated about risk.

This study is the latest in a long line of real-world research that Chapman and his collaborators have conducted.

“We try to actually match what people do versus what they say they do because people will say anything on a survey,” says Chapman “We’ve looked at cooking shows; observed handwashing and cross-contamination in commercial kitchens; hand hygiene during a norovirus outbreaks and others. What people actually do is the difference between an enjoyable meal and a foodborne illness.

“For example,” Chapman says, “did the server mention risks associated with undercooked meat when the shopper ordered? If not, the shopper would ask about the risk of getting sick, and then record whether the wait staff responded with clear, accurate information.”

The shoppers also looked to see whether restaurants included clear, accurate risk information on their menus.

The study found that 25 percent of restaurants wouldn’t even sell an undercooked hamburger to secret shoppers. However, at restaurants that would sell a medium-rare hamburger, the majority of servers – 77 percent – gave customers unreliable information about food safety.

“Servers said that meat was safe because it was cooked until ‘until the juices ran clear’ – which is totally unreliable,” says Ellen Thomas, a food safety scientist at RTI International and lead author of the study who worked on the project while a Ph.D. student at NC State. “Those 77 percent didn’t mention things like cooking meat to the appropriate temperature – either 155°F for 15 seconds, or 160°F for instant kill.

“The indicator of safety most widely-reported by servers was the color of the burger, and that’s also not a reliable indicator at all,” Thomas says “Time and temperature are all that matter. And undercooked, unsafe burger can be brown in the middle, and a safely cooked burger can still be red or pink in the center.”

Meanwhile, almost all of the menus complied with FDA guidance. But what servers told customers often contradicted the information on the menu.

“If a menu says something is risky but a server says that it isn’t, that can downplay the risks for consumers and impact a customer’s decisions,” Chapman says. “It’s confusing, leaving the patron to choose which message to believe”

The researchers also found that chain restaurants fared much better than independent restaurants at having servers offer reliable risk information.

“That’s not surprising,” Chapman says. “Large chains implement standardized training across all outlets for servers in order to protect their brand and reduce the likelihood of being implicated in a foodborne illness outbreak. That’s bad for business.

“This study tells us that servers aren’t good risk communicators,” Chapman says. “We encourage consumers to ask food safety questions, but they should probably ask a manager.

“It also tells us that we need to work on addressing the widespread – and wrong – belief that color is a reliable indicator of food safety in meat,” Chapman says. “Restaurants are in a position to help us share this information with consumers, but many servers are currently sharing incorrect information.”

The paper, “Assessment of Risk Communication about Undercooked Hamburgers by Restaurant Servers,” is published in the Journal of Food Protection. The paper was co-authored by Andrew Binder, Anne McLaughlin, Lee-Ann Jaykus, and Dana Hanson of NC State; and by Doug Powell of barfblog.com. The research was supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2012-68003-30155 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Abstract: According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 2013 Model Food Code, it is the duty of a food establishment to disclose and remind consumers of risk when ordering undercooked food such as ground beef. The purpose of this study was to explore actual risk communication activities of food establishment servers. Secret shoppers visited restaurants (n=265) in seven geographic locations across the U.S., ordered medium rare burgers, and collected and coded risk information from chain and independent restaurant menus and from server responses. The majority of servers reported an unreliable method of doneness (77%) or other incorrect information (66%) related to burger doneness and safety. These results indicate major gaps in server knowledge and risk communication, and the current risk communication language in the Model Food Code does not sufficiently fill these gaps. Furthermore, should servers even be acting as risk communicators? There are numerous challenges associated with this practice including high turnover rates, limited education, and the high stress environment based on pleasing a customer. If it is determined that servers should be risk communicators, food establishment staff should be adequately equipped with consumer advisory messages that are accurate, audience-appropriate, and delivered in a professional manner so as to help their customers make more informed food safety decisions.

Food Safety Talk 113: A Tale of Two Outbreaks

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.english-novelist-charles-dickens

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 113 can be found here and on iTunes.

Show notes so you can follow along at home:

Get stuffed?

I wrote the below for NC State News.

As a Canadian in the U.S. I’ve fully embraced the holiday season that runs from Thanksgiving through December. I enjoy spending a day planning and shopping for an event-style meal, and then another day actually preparing and cooking it. I throw on some tunes (this year it will probably be Drake, for my Canadian roots, and the Avett Brothers as a nod to North Carolina) and with the help of the rest of the family I’ll roast a turkey, make mashed potatoes, green beans, squash, beets and a couple of other harvest vegetables.

And we’ll make a lot of stuffing.stuffing-header-825x464

Depending on your preference and food persuasion there are lots of different stuffing or dressing options.

A common question that pops up is whether it’s better to cook stuffing it in the bird to preserve moisture (and get flavored by the turkey juices) or prepare it as a separate dish. The concern is that if someone puts the stuffing in the turkey cavity it may become contaminated by the turkey juices and Salmonella and Campylobacter will migrate through the stuffing. Easier to recommend not messing with the cross-contamination instead of managing the risk. But what does the science say?

I’m a food safety nerd and take a science-based approached to my meals. Armed with a digital, tip-sensitive thermometer I’m happy to jam stuffing up inside of my poultry and use the probe to check the temperature. And I use 165 degrees Fahrenheit as a target for my bread-based stuffing.

There’s some history to that number; in 1958 Raymond Rogers and Millard Gunderson of the Campbell Soup Company published some work evaluating the safety of roasting frozen stuffed turkeys (a new product at the time). Using a known amount of Salmonella pullorum, nine turkeys and some then-fancy ceramic thermocouples, they found that they could get an 8-log (or 99.999999%) reduction when the deepest part of the stuffing hit 160 degrees Fahrenheit. They recommended 165 degrees to be conservative (and because some thermometers aren’t always very accurate).

From the manuscript (comments that still apply today): “The initial temperature and the size of the turkey influence considerably the time required to reach a lethal temperature in the stuffing. The lower the initial temperature of the turkey, the longer the roasting period required. Present recommended roasting procedures designating hours cooking time or which stipulate a thigh or breast temperature to be attained alone does not appear to be adequate bacteriologically.”

Inside the bird, outside the bird; meat or no meat: Use a thermometer.

For your holiday viewing, here’s a video devoted to minimizing risk from foodborne illness when cooking turkey. More food safety tips are available here.

Food Safety Talk 112: Magical little poop nugget

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.1479398141136

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 111 can be found here and on iTunes.

Show notes so you can follow along at home:

This birthday themed episode features wide-ranging topics, many based on listener feedback. We briefly touch on election results, and then move (almost) right into food safety. Thanks to everyone for listening and for your feedback.

Norovirus goes through Spokane shelter

A few years ago an outbreak linked to a Denver homeless shelter made it into the barfblog new and notable category. Forty folks who depended on the emergency food were affected by violent foodborne illness symptoms after eating donated turkey. Fourteen ambulances showed up and took those most affected to area hospitals.screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-11-18-29-pm
Volunteering as a food handler at a mission, shelter or soup kitchen and having a good heart and intentions doesn’t automatically lead to safe meals. An understanding of risks and having systems how to reduce them may.
Norovirus can quickly go through a food shelter with many people living in close quarters; according to KREM over 160 people at a Spokane shelter are ill with noro, forcing some to move to a temporary tent city.
Members of Spokane’s homeless population are camping out at the House of Charity to avoid illness after the norovirus broke out on Friday.

Officials said the viral outbreak is under control.

Around 140 healthy people are being forced to sleep outside in an effort to keep them separated from those who are sick. Nearly 60 people who are sick are sleeping inside the facility.

On Saturday night, about 140 people slept in tents outside the House of Charity due to the viral outbreak.

On Saturday morning, around 40 people at the shelter, including patrons and staff, were isolated to one part of the shelter after becoming sick from a norovirus. The number of people showing symptoms of the illness increased to 60 by Sunday afternoon.

Morimoto restaurant linked to Salmonella

My roommate Owen and I used to watch Iron Chef, the original dubbed version, while we ate late night Chinese food after going to the bar. I always liked the Morimoto the best. He was sort of the Bill Belichick of the show. He never smiled and always had his game face on. Serious about fancy food.

Fancy food ain’t safe food though; according to the Napa Valley Register Morimoto’s Napa joint has been linked to six cases of salmonellosis.

Several people reported getting sick with salmonella after eating at Morimoto Napa last month, according to Napa County Public Health.

There are at least six confirmed cases of salmonella-related food borne illnesses in customers who dined at the restaurant on Main Street between Oct. 10 and Oct. 12, said Dr. Karen Relucio, the county’s chief public health officer.

Relucio confirmed that the restaurant has been cooperative. During their investigation, she said, officials found that the restaurant was very clean and organized with strict operating procedures.

I ate at Morimoto’s Disney Springs restaurant earlier this year and there was a lot of sushi and sashimi on the menu. Maybe it’s the frozen kind.

A break and enter at a waste water treatment plant may result in E. coli

I’m not sure why someone would want to break into a waste water treatment plant; maybe there are compounds that can be used to make meth (or I’ve watched too much Breaking Bad). According to WLWT, someone who broke into an Indiana facility might have also exposed themselves to a bunch of pathogenic E.coli.

Police say a burglar or burglars who entered a wastewater treatment plant in southeast Indiana should enter a doctor’s office soon.

Versailles police said that sometime late Saturday or early Sunday, someone broke into the plant, stole several items and vandalized other items.no_rough_stuff_-_walt_jesse

But the burglar or burglars may have taken something else with them, police said.

“During the burglary the suspect(s) came into contact with strains of E. coli that were in an incubator so they need to seek medical attention immediately!!” police said in a Facebook post.

It’s called barfblog: Valuable whale vomit found by fishers

I dunno what the safety concerns might be if waxy whale vomit, known as ambergris, is incorporated as a flavoring for food; the vomit is largely used to create musk fragrances for perfumes. According to Deccan Herald, 80kg of the vomit treasure, worth $2.5 million was found by Omani fishers.

Khalid Al Sinani, who is in his late 30s, found floating “whale vomit” on the shores of Qurayat province last week.513ee279059eb5f958e29ab3238c9fa2

‘Whale vomit’ or Ambergris is a very costly wax that originates as a secretion in the intestines of the sperm whale. It can be found floating in tropical seas and is used in manufacture of perfume.

After 20 years of hand-to-mouth life as a fisherman, Khalid’s childhood dream of winning the sea lottery came true on the morning of October 30 when he, along with two of his friends, saw a mass of ambergris floating on the sea, releasing a nasty smell.

“We used a rope to collect it and carry it inside the boat,” Khalid was quoted as saying by the Times of Oman.

“I was told earlier that ambergris has an icky smell, but after a couple of days it imparts a pleasant scent. We rushed back to the beach with joy and happiness,” he said.

After keeping his valuable harvest in a box, he called some experts to identify the material.

“After we made sure it was ambergris, we started cutting it in order to dry and sell it later,” Khalid said.

“I’ll wait to see how this sale will go and later I’ll think of changing my career and enter the real-estate sector to live a better life,” he said.

Dubai addressing shawarma risks

I’m on my way back to the US after a few days in Dubai teaching hotel, restaurant and other food business folks about stuff like sous vide food safety and measuring production parameters to reduce risk.

Bobby Krishna (below, left, exactly as shown), always the gracious host, showed me some cool stuff that Dubai is planning on launching as they prepare to host Expo 2020. One of the challenges the Dubai Municipality has tackled over the past decade as they modernize and add resources to their food safety system is balancing the traditional food stall/small business with addressing risks.

According to Gulf News, after a phase-in period, Dubai officials are enforcing new rules to make shawarmas safe again including proper facilities, temperature control and equipment sanitation.cwjw3kxxgaqy-q3

Almost 45 per cent of shawarma stands in Dubai will be closed, with Dubai Municipality enforcing its new rules for the sale of the popular Arabic delicacy in the emirate from November 1.

The six-month deadline given to 572 small and medium food outlets selling shawarma across Dubai to implement the new rules related to space, equipment and storage requirements aimed at enhancing hygiene and safety of the product ended on October 31.

Of these, only 318 have either made or are in the process of making the changes to their existing conditions as per the new guidelines to ensure the health and safety of consumers, the civic body said on Monday.

Sultan Ali Al Taher, head of Food Inspection Section at the Food Safety Department, said 146 establishments (25.5 per cent) among the 572 have completed the implementation of the new requirements before the deadline, 172 establishments (30.07 per cent) have begun the amendments and are still in the process of completing these.

The primary change that consumers can see will be the end of shawarma stands operating in an open area of an outlet. It is mandatory to move the shawarma stands indoors and ensure that they are not exposed to dust, dirt or any other external sources of pollution.

The regulations also make it mandatory to ensure proper refrigeration of raw materials, enough space for the storage of shawarma-making tools, separate facilities for defrosting frozen meat, thorough cleansing of vegetables and proper ways of waste disposal.

About a decade ago shawarma-style foods were linked to three outbreaks of E.coli O157 in Alberta, and I stopped eating them. Outbreak investigators found that traditional cooking practices including a rotating a cone of meat next to a heat source, were problematic, especially when the meat was cooked from frozen. A national committee was created to look at donair risks associated and the group recommended grilling post cone cut-off to ensure pathogen-killing temps.