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.

Nacho cheese-linked botulism cases; how?

A father of two small kids, Martin Galindo-Larios Jr. has tragically died.
A 33 year old mother of three, Lavinia Kelly, is paralyzed, unable to speak or breathe on her own.
The New York Daily news cites, Theresa Kelly recalling her sister calling, unable to express what was wrong with her. “My phone rings and I pick up the phone it’s her and she can’t articulate a word,” she told the news station. “I’ve never seen my sister not have function of her body or not be able to communicate.”
There are at least eight others ill. From one of the scariest foodborne pathogens, C. botulinum. This is a terrible outbreak with a lot of unknowns.
All because of gas station nacho cheese.
The type of cheese comes in a bag, usually inserted into a dispenser that heats it up and holds it until someone pours it on their Doritos. The cheese linked to these illnesses, from Gehl Foods, is produced aseptically to be stored at room temperature. Unrelated, Gehl Foods had a recall on their dispensers a few years ago due to fire risks.
And much of the information that’s out there points to the cheese being the vehicle, but since all the illnesses are linked to one gas station, Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station in Walnut Grove, California, it’s likely that storage, handling or both led to the illnesses.
Nozzles on food and beverage dispensers are notorious for soil and have been linked to listeria issues in the past. Its possible that buildup or contamination from hands or food placed a spore in the nozzle area – and it got sucked up into the anaerobic cheese bag. This only becomes an issue if the temperature of the cheese in the dispenser drops lower than 120F or so.
Maybe a food employee took a half empty bag out of the dispenser, and put an old cap back on the bag, and left it out at room temperature for a while (like hours or days) by accident. And then reinstalled it.
Or possibly there was a puncture of the bag in transport or storage that shoved a spore deep inside the cheese – and the product coagulated and hardened, resealing the package.
I’m done speculating now.
I told Laura Geggei at Live Science about botulism, and why it scares me.
The toxin blocks nerve messages, which, in turn, causes people to lose control of their muscles, Chapman told Live Science. For instance, people who have consumed the toxin may have trouble swallowing, droopy eyelids and difficulty breathing, he said.
“They are essentially paralyzed, as the toxin surrounds those nerves and blocks those messages,” Chapman told Live Science.
“People can recover only as the toxin gets scrubbed from their body, which is a long, horrible process,” Chapman said. “Some people never recover from it. I’ve seen cases of people, years later, still walking with a cane [and] having problems with speech.”

The intersection of marijuana and food safety

I hate missing hockey. Skipping my Monday night game was worth it though; I spent some time with some old friends at the Rocky Mountain Food Safety Conference in Denver. I’d been with the good folks of Colorado before, speaking at the conference in 2006 (and again virtually with Doug a couple of years ago).

Sometimes food safety meetings have similar slots: updates on recent outbreaks, a company’s new training strategy or someone talking about environmental sampling. The Rocky Mountain Food Safety Conference was different. I spent an afternoon learning about keeping marijuana and food products safe.

I found it fascinating.

Doug often cites a Neil Young quote that guides a lot of stuff that I do ‘Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.’ Farmers’ markets, food pantries, roadkill. These are all in the food safety ditch. So is pot.

I learned that marijuana (and the active compounds of THC and CBD) can be consumed in lots of different ways – smoking is the somewhat traditional way, but there’s vaping, edibles (cookies, candies, chocolates, etc) and even suppositories, tampons and personal lubricants. Who knew.

What was really compelling is the intricacies of the regulations and enforcement. The state health folks are in a tough spot because they receive federal funds – and the product is still seen as illegal by the feds. This has led to some local health departments have stepped in to regulating not only just the retail stores on how they handle the food and other products – but also the marijuana infused product processing. I’ve said that environmental health specialists are the salt of the earth; passionate protectors of public health and have some of the very best stories. It’s heartening to see folks who know food safety stuff putting together a framework of science-based guidelines for pathogen control, pesticides and other risky compounds. They’re trailblazers since there’s not a whole lot to go on. They look to LACF thermal death curves for C. bot spore inactivation in oils and tinctures (these aren’t highly refined oils) and requiring folks to manage cleaning and sanitation using GMP and the Food Code as a guide. There are risks, marijuana smoking was linked to a 1981 outbreak of salmonellosis (an oldie but a goodie) and some of the edibles out there have the correct pH and water activity to support the growth of pathogens.

And labeling, serving/dose size matters.

My guess is that there are a few processors who are really good at the THC part of things – and not so good at the food safety. It’s cool that the local regulators are working with them to keep the stoners safe.

I got back in time for my hockey game tonight.

Not everything is food safety

Travel woes en route to an FAO meeting (oh, that is a food safety hook)  in Russia resulted in me having 12 hours to kill in Paris. Instead of staying in the city, I did something today that I’ve thought about for a while but had not had the chance- rented the world’s smallest stick shift car and traveled to Normandy. I drove through the French countryside and walked along Juno Beach where many Canadians landed on D-Day.

Most emotional for me was seeing an area of the world that had an impact on my life – the small villages of Le Mesnil-Patry and Norrey-en-Bessin. My grandfather, who Sam is named for, was part of a small group of seven that survived a battle where their company lost 98 soldiers. My grandfather was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal. Although we were very close he never spoke about it.


Nacho cheese linked to gas station botulism outbreak

Before I moved to the south I hadn’t thought about a gas station as a place for a meal. Growing up in Ontario (that’s in Canada) I was familiar with a Tim Hortons/gas station combos, but there weren’t a lot of independent stations selling foods like here in North Carolina. Most gas stations are stocked at least with crockpots full of boiled peanuts or metal rollers frying hot dogs. Sometimes there are tacos, tamales, or bbq sandwiches.

Oh and nachos with a faucet that squirts cheese.

That kind of cheese has, according to the Sacramento Bee, been linked to a cluster of five cases of botulism at a California gas station.

On Wednesday, Sacramento County Public Health officials pinpointed the source of the botulism outbreak as “prepared food, particularly nacho cheese sauce” from Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station in the Delta. Five people are hospitalized in serious condition with botulism, a rare but serious paralytic illness caused by a nerve toxin, and an additional patient is suspected of having the illness.

The gas station, which sits on a busy stretch of River Road across from the Walnut Grove Bridge, stopped selling food and drink products on May 5 after the county Department of Environmental Management temporarily revoked its permit. Employees of the gas station refused to comment this week on the suspected outbreak.

Some of the gas station nacho cheeses come in an aseptically sealed bag (right, exactly as shown) that can be stored at room temperature because of how they are processed, despite the high pH and high water activity. Kathy Glass and Ellin Doyle wrote a fantastic summary of the safety of processed cheeses and they highlight three bot outbreaks of cheese sauces in the past.

A single case of fatal botulism in California was associated with the consumption of a Liederkranz Brand canned cheese spread in 1951. Few details are available about the formulation and conditions under which this product was produced and stored. The product label indicated that it was a pasteurized process soft ripened cheese spread with citric acid and vegetable gum added. Moisture and salt levels were not reported, but pH of the product was 5.9.

Two decades later in 1974, a cheese spread with onions was implicated in an outbreak in Argentina that resulted in six cases of botulism and three deaths.. As with the Liederkranz product, this spread was not thermally processed to be commercially sterile nor was it formulated specifically for safety. Laboratory experiments revealed that botulinal toxin was produced in cheese spread samples with a similar formulation (pH 5.7, aw 0.97) after 30 to 70 days’ storage at 30oC.

A third outbreak involving process cheese resulted in eight cases of botulism and one death in Georgia in 1993. The implicated cheese sauce was aseptically canned to eliminate C. botulinum spores; therefore, it was not formulated to prevent botulinal growth. The epidemiological investigation suggested that the product was likely recontaminated in the restaurant with C. botulinum spores and stored at room tempera- ture for several days before use. Inoculation studies of the implicated cheese sauce (pH 5.8, aw 0.96) revealed that botulinal toxin was produced after 8 days’ storage at 22oC.



Food Safety Talk 125: Slapping it on a bun

Don and Ben talked big concerts, Flaming Lips (the band, not the anatomy) obscure Canadian bands covering Neil Young and then got into some food safety stuff like the particulars of deer antler tea, with some deer penis sprinkled in. The discussion went to the rules around home-based food businesses and how risk-based decisions are made in regulatory choices. The episode finished with some listener feedback on washing produce and mold and whether food employees at Blue Apron (and like mail-order businesses) should have local health department food handler training.

Episode 125 can be found here and on iTunes.

Show notes so you can follow along at home:

Missing the boat on food safety messages in cookbooks: redux

From the food-safety-in-popular-culture files comes the paper that keeps on giving. Katrina Levine and I both chronicled our experiences around our British Food Journal paper exploring the food safety messages in cookbooks.

I’m still being asked by friends whether Gwyneth and I are on speaking terms (we would be, and I’d point her and her Goop towards science and data); the print version of the paper was published last week (abstract updated with page numbers and stuff here).

And Huffington Post Australia, always current, picked up the story yesterday.

Researchers analyzed 1,497 recipes from 29 cookbooks that appeared on New York Times bestseller lists in 2013 and 2014. Recipes were considered “correct” if they noted the proper endpoint temperature for a meat or animal product, per guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 92 percent of recipes didn’t note a temperature at all. Some recommended other ways of measuring doneness, like cooking meat until its juices run clear or until it turns a certain color. Since these methods aren’t reliable, the study considered those recipes “incorrect.”

Some cookbooks offered both good and bad cooking advice, the study’s senior author Benjamin Chapman told The Huffington Post. For example, one recipe in Paltrow’s cookbook It’s All Good noted a correct endpoint temperature, but also instructed readers to wash poultry before cooking it ― a practice that can spread bacteria around the kitchen and is warned against by the USDA and other experts.

Celebrity cookbook authors should include safe cooking temperatures in their recipes more often, he added.

“We have the ability to list a science-backed indicator,” Chapman said. “And we’re missing the boat.”

The boat cliche seemed appropriate at the time. Me and the boys had just finished watching Showtime’s, The Beach Boys: Making Pet Sounds, and I was thinking of Sloop John B.


Bot cluster linked to California gas station

Botulism is no joke. The threat of bot toxins binding to nerve endings and blocking muscle contractions scares me.

A small bit of toxin means no more hockey, no catch with my kids and months of rehab. That’s why I find it so scary.

There’s usually less than a couple of hundred cases annually in the US. And not much foodborne. In the past week we’ve seen dried deer antler tea-linked to two illnesses – and now a California gas station looks to be the source of another outbreak, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Sacramento County Public Health officials are investigating a botulism outbreak after several people who ate prepared food from the Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station in Walnut Grove contracted the possibly fatal form of food poisoning.

County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye said five cases are under investigation and the affected people are in serious condition at local hospitals. Four of the five confirmed they’d eaten prepared food from the gas station. Kasirye said the county wants to ensure that anyone who has eaten at the gas station since April 23 and is experiencing botulism symptoms receives immediate medical attention.

Unknown are the linked foods – and what the type toxin it is (because that may be a clue). I usually stick to candy bars and gum at gas stations.

Rob Mancini: Why do folks insist on providing bad food safety advice?

Our resident non-aging television personality and food safety dude, Rob Mancini, writes

Inside Edition’s Chief Investigative Correspondent and food safety expert knocked on the doors of random homes in Los Angeles to conduct surprise kitchen inspections. Homes were graded as either A (good) to C (bad).

They also provided food safety tips for homeowners.

In 2005, as part of my show, Kitchen Crimes for the Food Network (Canada) and HGTV (US), we looked at food safety in residential homes in Canada  and found some pretty incredible things.

While I appreciate the concept of a food safety expert going into peoples’ homes and inspecting for food violations, I’m not sure if I agree with their tips.

Tips below:

1. Check cutting boards for grooves from your knives. Those small crevices can house some dangerous bacteria. If you see grooves, throw it out.

2. To prevent cross-contamination, store raw meat, fish and poultry on the bottom shelf of your fridge, below your prepared and ready-to-eat food.

3. Store food in plastic containers with tight lids or wrap tightly with plastic wrap or aluminum foil to keep out bacteria, both in and out of the refrigerator.

4. Even a dishwasher gets dirty. Keep your dishwasher clean and free of food particles by wiping it down with distilled bleach and occasionally run an empty load with bleach instead of dish soap.

5. Set aside one day of the month to check expiration dates, especially meat, seafood, produce, eggs and dairy – expired foods can contaminate your safe food.

6. After preparing a meal, especially meat, wipe down surfaces with distilled bleach.

7. Regularly empty your refrigerator and wipe down the surfaces with distilled bleach – especially those lower shelves where you store your meats.

When Powell sent me this article last night, one of the first things I did this morning was pass along these tips to some of my fellow homeowner friends to get their thoughts. First thing out of their mouths was “What….distilled bleach, what is a homeowner going to do with this tip?? What does this even mean?  Do I need to wear gloves?  Do I dilute it?”

Precisely… bad food safety tip.  Kinda’ like using the term piping hot for internal food temperatures. Do not use distilled bleach, scrub your food contact surfaces with soap and water and rinse. The trick is to use friction when cleaning to dislodge bacteria and other like organisms off the surface. If you are adamant on using a sanitizer, try vinegar, worked for our ancestors.

Now onto cutting boards, every cutting board has grooves and even if they don’t, bacteria can still be embedded in some sort of fashion. Bacteria are small and even a freshly planed cutting board, whether it is plastic or wood, is not perfectly smooth under a microscope and will cause entrapment.

O. Pete Synder evaluated 3 types of cutting boards, a hard maple cutting board, plastic cutting board, and a stainless steel surface. In his study he found that rinsing a cutting board with a solution of 1 part 5% vinegar to 4 parts water was a more effective sanitizer than using a quaternary ammonium compound solution for removing aerobic bacteria from a food contact surface (1).

ENOUGH WITH THE DISTILLED BLEACH ALREADY, if they are advocating for the use of chlorine, please quantify. Keep in mind, this is not a restaurant and homeowners are not likely to have chlorine test strips to test their solution concentration causing a myriad of other concerns.

Do not pour bleach into your residential dishwasher as this will lead to corrosion of pipes and may damage the machine. If you see residual food particles left after a cycle, this is an indication that your dishwasher is probably working well. Not a food safety concern and bleach will only ruin your machine.

No mention of dishcloths or scrub pads. Results from show have shown that your ordinary dishcloth, scrub pads, and kitchen sinks are the dirtiest things in your kitchen.

Maybe it’s time for a Kitchen Crimes US Edition.

1.     O. Peter Snyder, Jr., Ph.D. 1997.The Microbiology Of Cleaning And Sanitizing A Cutting Board. Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management.

A parent’s nightmare: criminal investigation into infant death ruled natural, due to acute salmonellosis

This is tragic stuff. Five month old Tyler Wilson dies from salmonellosis and parents also deal with the added nightmare of a public inquest. These are the real names and faces of food safety.

Lindsey Wilson and Tim Lees suffered every parents’ worst nightmare after discovering five-month-old Tyler Wilson unresponsive.

Tyler suffered no symptoms but on the morning of November 25, 2014, he was discovered unresponsive by mum Lindsey as she was changing his nappy.

Scan for James Campbell:
Tyler Wilson, five months, who died of a salmonella infection

The panic-stricken parents ran out of their home in Ventnor Street, off Newland Avenue in west Hull, screaming for help.


At a Hull inquest on Wednesday, senior coroner Professor Paul Marks ruled Tyler died of natural causes.

The ruling concludes more than two years of hell for the couple who were the subject of a criminal investigation.


Mancini speaks: Central Atlantic States Association of Food and Drug Officials 101 Annual Educational and Training Seminar

Our resident non-aging television personality and food safety dude, Rob Mancini, writes that he’ll be speaking at the CASA Educational Conference on May 2nd, 2017 in Saratoga Springs, NY regarding his research on alternate modes of food safety training.

The importance of training food handlers is critical to effective food hygiene; however, there have been limited studies on the effectiveness of such training.

Food safety training courses are administered worldwide in attempts to reduce outbreaks in food service, retail and temporary food service establishments. However, food handlers often exhibit a poor understanding of microbial or chemical contamination of food and the measures necessary to correct them.

Studies suggest that the provision of a hands-on format of training would be more beneficial than traditional classroom-based programs. The delivery of such a program may assist in changing ones’ food safety behaviours and aid in the retention of knowledge that are necessary to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness.