Barfblog Co-Founder on Restaurants, Food Safety

June 9, 2010
By Chris Richter

Ben Chapman

The Abstract, NC State News Services’ research blog, wrote yesterday about research led by Ben Chapman, an assistant professor and food safety specialist. The researchers put video cameras in commercial kitchens and found that risky food preparation practices happen more often than previously thought.

Chapman has a real passion for food safety (he calls himself a “nerdy dinner companion”), and he regularly publishes infosheets on food safety. He’s also the co-founder of the always fascinating Barfblog. Don’t worry, it’s way more interesting than it is disgusting. It’s a really accessible blog about food safety that will have you washing your hands a lot more often than you do right now (be warned . . . there is some barfing).

We caught up with Chapman yesterday and talked to him about restaurants and some ways to avoid food poisoning.

What do you look for when you eat in a restaurant?

Living in North Carolina, I look for sanitation grades. That’s one of the pieces of information I look at, [but] you have to put a whole picture together. I check out what people are doing and . . . look at what their practices are. As with a lot of stuff around food, a lot of it is trust-based and reputation-based and experience-based. Every meal I have — whether I make it at home or . . . when I go out to eat — I’m always sort of trusting someone’s not going to make me sick. I definitely look at the historical scores of our favorite restaurants. That tells me more than that 96 or 91 or 94 when I walk in. That’s why I love some of the [systems that counties] have in North Carolina. I can go back and look at inspection reports if I want to know a lot about [a restaurant]. The second thing I do is ask a lot of questions, which maybe makes me a nerdy dinner companion. I’m always interested in hearing what people do for food safety, what they think about it, [how they respond when I ask] about it.

How reliable are those sanitation grades?

They’re not indicators of whether I’m going to get sick. They’re this window into when the inspector showed up. We know from research that when inspectors show up, people do things differently. They try to be on their best behavior. It’s a piece of information that I think is necessary for people who are interested in eating safely. It’s not a guarantee. [There’s] not a match between low scores and likelihood of outbreaks. That’s why I look at these things over time and say, OK, if they have consistently bad cross-contamination violations, I don’t want to eat there. If they consistently have no tools for washing hands, [I don’t want to eat there]. [If] the last four times the inspector showed up they had the same violation, that gives me a [better] picture.

What sends you running from a restaurant?

If I go into a place, and they ask how I want my burger cooked, I say, can you measure to 160 F? That sounds really nerdy. There’s about 10 places I’ve been to that say no problem. They have a meat thermometer. That makes me really happy. They know the risk associated with that product and they know how to manage it and they have the tools to manage it. If I asked that question at a restaurant and they said, we don’t have a meat thermometer, I wouldn’t eat there. I want to someone to tell me how they manage risk. They could be lying to me. But at least they know how to answer that question, which is better to me. I don’t think you can walk in and go to the bathroom and [judge the restaurant by asking], is the bathroom clean? I think that’s an urban myth. Really food safety is about processes.

What are three easy ways we can be safe when it comes to food?

You can’t look at a product or a meal and know if it was cooked to the right temperature. We can’t trust that the juices are running clear or that it’s steaming or anything that has to do with color. The only thing we can fall back on is the temperature of that food. Buy a food thermometer. They’re less than $10 at Wal-Mart. Use them on all the meats you cook. And it’s not just meats that need to get to a specific temperature for safety. We saw chicken pot pies have a problem a few years ago with salmonella. We saw, last year, there was cookie dough people were eating raw.

[Avoid] cross contamination. The messages around direct cross contamination are [about] raw chicken dripping on your salad. We didn’t see a lot of that [in our research]. There’s a lot more indirect cross contamination. The risk factors increase when someone uses the same tongs or the same plates to handle raw foods [that they do to carry or serve the foods]. The classic example is taking something out to the grill that’s raw on a tray and putting the done stuff right back on top of that tray. We’re preparing the manuscript [on a study of] church dinners. That happened a lot.

Handwashing is the catch all. As a society, we don’t do really great job of washing hands . . . after going to the bathroom or handling contaminated things.

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(Photograph by Marc Hall)

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