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.

Why so many outbreaks in 2018? I’m not sure there were, but math is hard

Don and I recorded a podcast today and one of the potential show titles was math is hard.

I’m writing from experience, I had to take calculus in high school twice to get it. Explaining probability and risk is even tougher.

Some of the math of food safety illness burden comes down to this for me: There are billions of meals every year in the U.S. that don’t lead to foodborne illness.

That’s good.

There are millions of meals every year in the U.S. that do lead to foodborne illness.

That’s bad.

There was some buzz in the food and health media after a CNN article stated that CDC had investigated more multistate outbreaks in 2018, 21 in total, than any previous year.

That’s sorta true, but sorta not, depends on how it’s counted.

Rachel Rettner of Live Science talked to me about this last week and I shared the National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS) dashboard with her. This is a super cool tool that CDC has where they track all the reported outbreaks in the U.S. and the number isn’t 21. It’s probably closer to 4000. At least that’s around what has been reported into NORS annually since 2009 when reporting got better.

I’m throwing out the multistate part in my calculations, because the microbes don’t care about state lines or borders.

From the Live Science article:

Experts say that, although we heard a lot about foodborne disease in 2018, it doesn’t mean that we had any more outbreaks than usual. Indeed, it’s likely that the U.S. always has about the same number of outbreaks every year, said Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University. But critically, health officials are getting better at detecting these outbreaks, Chapman said, leading to an increase in reported outbreaks in recent years.
“The science is getting better, and the public health resources are getting better, and we’re just getting better at finding things,” Chapman told Live Science

And although these outbreaks made headlines, there are hundreds more outbreaks that we don’t necessarily hear about that get investigated and reported every year. (An outbreak refers to an instance when two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or ingredient, according to the CDC.)
Indeed, according to the CDC’s National Outbreak Reporting System, which summarizes data on U.S. reports of foodborne illness, there were about 4,000 foodborne illness outbreaks each year from 2012 to 2016, (the most recent years for which data is available). That’s up from only about 1,000 reported outbreaks in 2008.
That “looks like this big jump” in outbreaks, Chapman said. But the increase is really due to health officials getting better at “connecting the dots” to find more foodborne illness outbreaks, he said. In other words, the outbreaks were happening, but health officials just weren’t as good as detecting them.

Unfortunately, better detection of outbreaks means that the total number of reported outbreaks likely won’t be going down anytime soon.
“As we get better at reducing risk [of foodborne illness], we also get better at finding things we didn’t know were there,” Chapman said. “I don’t expect that we would have any less or any more outbreaks in 2019.”

Rewashing those pre-washed greens isn’t doing anything

If I’m eating pre-washed lettuce I just open the bag and throw it on the plate. Because there’s not much I can do, safety-wise, to it once it’s in my home. If there’s pathogenic E. coli, Listeria or Salmonella there (or others) I’m stuck with it.

Cindy Tran of the Daily Mail writes that Sydney, Australia nutritionist Susie Burrell recently talked about food safety risks on a local morning show including a recommendation to rewash prewashed leafy greens. 

She said people should always wash their store-bought salads, even if the packaging says ‘pre-washed’.

‘You must wash those ones out of the bags. It does say pre-washed but I would always wash it again because it has sat there for a long period, you don’t know what the turnover time is.’

I’m following recommendations from a bunch of my food safety friends who reviewed the literature on cut, bagged, washed, ready-to-eat leafy greens from a few years ago. In the abstract, they write:

The panel concluded that leafy green salad in sealed bags labeled “washed” or “ready-to-eat” that are produced in a facility inspected by a regulatory authority and operated under cGMPs, does not need additional washing at the time of use unless specifically directed on the label.

Leafy green food safety risks need to be addressed before they get to me, all I can do by washing it again is increase the chance I cross-contaminate the salad precursor in my home. My purchasing choice is based in trust that growers, packers and processors know what they are doing, and do it. But at best, they can only remove 90-99% of what is there with a wash.

And I can’t do any better.

365 burgers in a year, how many were cooked to 160F?

I like hamburgers, not enough to eat an average of one a day though. According to the Los Angeles Times, that’s what restaurant investor Lawrence Longo did in 2018. Added difficulty, he did it at 365 different restaurants.

When asked to describe the perfect burger Longo responded:

Not too much going on. Bun-cheese-meat-bun. If you have the right meat, the right bun, the right ratio, you don’t need any ingredients on that burger. The juices on that burger are all you really need.

I’d add that it was cooked to 160F and verified with a tip-sensitive digital thermometer.

 

Food safety and marketing folks should get together and improve messaging

One of the common discussions I have with industry folks is around the disconnect between marketing and food safety. The good food safety people will remain nameless, but a few times a year I hear at a meeting or via email/text/DM that someone in their organization doesn’t get food safety and puts stuff out without thinking of consequences.

John Bassett, friend of the blog (and pod) you can find him at @foodriskguy on Twitter, a great food safety risk assessment dude called out some folks at My Food Bag NZ (a Blue Apron-type meal service) for missing the mark on their messaging.

 

The good folks at My Food Bag responded with a canned response. I’d rather hear from their food safety folks.

 

 

Food Safety Talk 171: 350 Million Caesars

It’s a Christmas miracle as Don and Ben finally align schedules after snow kept Ben from his microphone and Don’s travel. After a little bit of banter on construction noises, and Canadian cocktails, the guys talk about egg nog and the effects of alcohol on Salmonella. The conversation goes to eating human flesh and brains (the guys are not fans) and mycotoxins in a fermented Chinese tea, puerh. Don and Ben chat about cleaning retail stores after recalled produce has been on display and whether Romaine lettuce is now worry-free.

Food Safety Talk episode 171 is now available here and at iTunes.

Show notes so you can follow along at home:

Everyone has a camera – even the restaurant operators

Doug and I have been talking about marketing food safety for years – the oft misunderstood concept. If you’re doing a good job at food safety tell everyone about it – differentiate yourself from your competitors. Complementing this idea is transparency and disclosure. Everyone has a camera.

In 2005 some keen public health folks in Korea started soliciting food safety-related pictures from diners as they ate and ordered at restaurants. The authorities wanted to enlist citizens to look for violations to place additional pressure on businesses to be decent food safety citizens – and to fine them for bad practices.

Five years ago we started a project, citizen food safety, on Instagram. Collectively capturing food safety, in the broadest terms through the lens of the camera phone-wielding public. This wasn’t just for the food safety nerds; its for the Interweb’s population of eaters: the regular folks who shop, eat at restaurants, visit farmers markets, cook or eat.

The hashtag #citizenfoodsafety still pops up sometimes on social media.

According to Xinhuanet, Health officials in the Chinese city of Hangzhou are actively calling on restaurant operators to be more transparent and put up cameras and offer patrons a live look on what’s going on in the kitchen. I love it. This advances #citizenfoodsafety.

Sure, folks can do weird stuff in blind spots, but this is a cool progression.

In an effort to alleviate food safety concerns that shroud China’s booming takeout services, the capital city of Zhejiang Province said over 150 restaurants had offered such services on a popular takeout app.

Hangzhou’s administration for market regulation said it was part of the city’s campaign to turn its eateries into “sunshine restaurants,” which install cameras or have open kitchens to allow for customer supervision.

The online live vetting aims to eliminate the “blind spot” as more restaurants jump on the mobile internet bandwagon to promote their takeout services, said Wang Jinchao, an official with the administration.

Consumers will feel relieved as they can see what happens in the kitchen, while the restaurants will be prompted to comply with the rules, according to Wang.

FDA’s update on Romaine-linked outbreak investigation – it is California stuff

The normal folks who I hang out with at the hockey arena have already started asking when they can start eating Romaine again (who knew there were so many Caesar fans).

FDA’s answer to when is soon

Some places never stopped serving it. 

Earlier today I told Korin Miller at Yahoo the below:

If you happen to visit a restaurant that tries to claim its romaine is safe, it’s really best to avoid the food. “I would send it back,” Benjamin Chapman, an assistant professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “When the CDC comes out with a message that says ‘Don’t eat romaine lettuce,’ you should heed that advice,” he says. “Right now, we don’t have any indication that it’s romaine from any certain part of the country or a certain company. It’s a standing blanket statement.”

And now we’ve got more information (that’s how quickly this stuff moves).

FDA announced late today that they have narrowed their investigation to field grown Romaine from Central Coast growing regions of northern and central California.

All other lettuce is as safe as it was last week before the announcement.

FDA is taking things a step further, in a really positive way in concept – asking producers to label where it came from.

Based on discussions with producers and distributors, romaine lettuce entering the market will now be labeled with a harvest location and a harvest date or labeled as being hydroponically- or greenhouse-grown. If it does not have this information, you should not eat or use it.

There is no recommendation for consumers or retailers to avoid using romaine lettuce that is certain to have been harvested from areas outside of the Central Coast growing regions of northern and central California. For example, romaine lettuce harvested from areas that include, but are not limited to the desert growing region near Yuma, the California desert growing region near Imperial County and Riverside County, the state of Florida, and Mexico, does not appear to be related to the current outbreak. Additionally, there is no evidence hydroponically- and greenhouse-grown romaine is related to the current outbreak.

During this new stage of the investigation, it is vital that consumers and retailers have an easy way to identify romaine lettuce by both harvest date and harvest location. Labeling with this information on each bag of romaine or signage in stores where labels are not an option would easily differentiate for consumers romaine from unaffected growing regions.

Food Safety Talk 170: Pants Pants Pants!

The show opens with a discussion of technology and cyber Monday, before segueing to Ben’s missing tooth. From there the guys do a deep dive into the recent E. coli O157:H7 in romaine lettuce outbreak before turning to listener feedback. They cover heating breastmilk, putting bleach on the food of homeless people, temperature monitoring devices, proper methods for thawing turkey, reconditioning cutting boards, and air quality of dairy processing plant all based on listener feedback. Buckle up, this is a bonus sized episode.

You can download episode 169 here and at iTunes.

Show notes so you can follow along at home:

CDC’s Romaine clapback

Maybe it’s Californian Romaine, maybe not, but there looks to be some contradiction between messages from FDA’s Scott Gottlieb and CDC’s Director, Robert Redfield.

Redfield announced this after Gottlieb’s tweets indicating that the source of illnesses is likely California.

CDC continues to investigate a multistate outbreak of E. coli O157 infections linked to romaine lettuce. We understand this outbreak is of concern to many Americans – especially with so many gathering for meals this Thanksgiving week. CDC’s disease detectives are working with federal regulatory partners to investigate and determine the source of contamination as quickly as possible. We will continue to provide more information as it becomes available. The good news is we were able to detect and identify the outbreak quickly through our disease surveillance system, which can prevent further illness.

However, until we know more, it’s crucial that Americans continue to follow the guidance that CDC issued. There are no exceptions – all romaine lettuce must be discarded, regardless of brand, type, or if it is in a mixture. We also continue to urge people to follow our tips to help prevent E. coli illness. In addition, we remind clinicians that antibiotics are not recommended for patients in whom E. coli O157 is suspected until diagnostic testing rules out this infection.

FDA’s Gottlieb says Romaine likely came from California (other regions might be off the hook)

Scott Gottlieb, FDA Commissioner took to the Twitter this morning while many were buying TVs and Himalayan salt lamps to talk about the Romaine-linked E. coli O157 outbreak.

I imagine there’s lots of pressure out there to lift the blanket statement from CDC to avoid all Romaine. Especially if the dates of harvest/transition from one location to another make it so it’s not likely that lettuce from certain regions would be linked to the outbreak.

Some sort of identification is great – because how would a consumer know what to ask about or how to figure out the source without it.