Perspectives Online, The Magazine of The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Summer 2009 Issue

College Profile - Dr. Ben Chapman provides the facts on food safety to the people who need to know. By Natalie Hampton


Ben Chapman
Photo by Marc Hall

When Ben Chapman arrived at N.C. State University in January as the new food safety specialist in the Department of 4-H Youth Development and Family and Consumer Sciences, he hit the ground running. Salmonella had been discovered in peanut butter products distributed from a Georgia

peanut processor, and Cooperative Extension agents around the state were getting questions about which peanut butter products were safe to eat and which were not.

Chapman was uniquely positioned to obtain the latest information on the crisis and provide it to the field. Since his days as an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, he has been involved with FSNet, a service that provides regular updates on news pertaining to food-borne illnesses and food safety risks around the world. More than 8,000 people in North America, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia get the FSNet newsletter every day. The site is now at bites.ksu.edu/news.


Chapman, here examining produce at the N.C. Farmers’ Market in Raleigh, envisions a widespread “food safety culture” that would include the entire farm-to-fork continuum.
Photo by Marc Hall
Since joining the family and consumer sciences faculty, Chapman has been involved in a number of projects, including updating agents on news regarding the Salmonella outbreak in peanuts, working with the Fresh Produce Safety Task Force, launching the food safety component of the new FCS Cook Smart, Eat Smart curriculum and offering food preservation training to Extension agents.

Chapman and his wife, Danielle, along with their infant son, Jack, had begun looking for a place to start an academic career when the food safety job opportunity opened with the family and consumer sciences program. “We were also pretty sick of winter” in Canada, he said. And they wanted to stay reasonably close to their families in Toronto.

“We had explored possibilities at different land-grant universities. We liked Raleigh — it is urban and yet easy to get around,” he said. “N.C. State was definitely on the list. The position was exactly what I wanted to do.”

And there was another attraction, as well. Since arriving in North Carolina, Chapman has converted from a former Toronto Maple Leafs hockey fan to a Carolina Hurricanes fan. He says that he spends much of his free time discussing the virtues of hockey with his wife and son. A player himself since age 4, he has even started playing hockey here in North Carolina with a group in Wake Forest.

He is also excited about the opportunity to work in the U.S. extension system. “Here, food safety is so much more supported,” he said.

“We don’t have extension in Canada, like in the United States. The provincial government plays that role, but there’s not an academic role,” Chapman said. “North Carolina has such a huge extension tradition and infrastructure.”

Chapman was a molecular biology major at the University of Guelph in a city of about 120,000 outside of Toronto, when he took a summer job after his third year with a professor working in risk analysis. The job involved “surfing the Internet to read about all that was going on with food risks” for FSNet. At the time, FSNet served as basically a news clipping service for news about food safety.

“I sort of became a news junkie just by following all this food safety news,” Chapman said.

‘The resurgence of local foods and home canning is good news for both the health of North Carolinians and the economic health of the state. However, there are areas of potential concern related to food safety.’ During the summer, 3,000 people in Walkerton, Ontario, a town north of Guelph, got sick in a water-borne E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Following the news coverage of the outbreak led Chapman to a newfound interest in how an outbreak unfolds.

Since that time, Chapman has focused on finding the best ways to communicate food safety risk to the people who need to know. He is interested in how social media like Facebook and rapid communication technologies like Twitter might improve public safety around the issue of food risk.

“It’s estimated that each year, 76 million people get sick from food-borne illness,” he said. “That figure hasn’t really changed in the last 10 years. We’ve had no net loss or net gain.”

Chapman earned a master’s degree and doctorate in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph. For three summers, he worked with greenhouse vegetable operations, designing and implementing on-farm food safety education programs to effectively communicate risk to farmers.

Following that project, he became involved in communicating risk to food-service workers. Chapman had a sense that the bathroom posters proclaiming that “employees must wash hands before returning to work” might not produce the desired results. He felt that telling employees stories about food safety risks would increase food handlers’ efforts at keeping their hands clean.

Chapman developed food safety info-sheets (www.foodsafetyinfosheets.com), one-page Web-based fact sheets with information about the consequences of poor food handling practices — how they can lead to illnesses, destroy business reputations and result in lawsuits. He wanted to know if these fact sheets would change employee behavior related to “hand-washing attempts.” Chapman even spent a semester working as a dishwasher in a restaurant to get a better sense of what the work climate was like.

Chapman and a crew of undergraduate research assistants tested their theory with cameras placed in food-service operations that captured more than 1,000 hours of video while following 47 food handlers. What they discovered was that posting the fact sheets did encourage employees to increase their attempts at hand washing and a decrease in cross-contamination between food sources. The researchers defined attempts as any effort by employees to wash their hands at the sink.

Chapman noted that during busy times, employees tended to forget safe food-handling practices. “When it’s busy in a food-service operation, it gets really crazy,” he said.

In his new position, Chapman continues his quest to find the best ways of reaching food-service workers and consumers. Ideally, he would like to see a widespread “food safety culture” that would include the entire farm to fork continuum — from farmers’ markets to church dinners; from farms to restaurants.

“We have a responsibility to get that information out there,” Chapman said. “The kind of things we’re doing here would have been hard to do in Canada — moving food safety forward.”

One way that Chapman has been moving food safety forward is helping agents develop training programs on home food preservation. Once a hallmark of extension programming through tomato clubs for girls, canning and other home food preservation techniques had largely fallen out of favor with consumers in recent years.

From the time he arrived in North Carolina, Chapman noted that nearly 40 percent of his questions related to home food preservation. He developed train-the-trainer workshops for Extension agents, some of whom had never taught canning before. He believes that nearly every agent who has participated is offering canning workshops this summer. In some counties, participation in the canning workshops is up 300 percent over past years; others have added workshops to accommodate the demand.

Chapman attributes this renewed interest in home food preservation to three factors: New home gardeners wanting to preserve what they grow — vegetable seed purchases reportedly are up by 15 to 40 percent around the country; the local foods movement, which has encouraged consumers to purchase and eat more local produce; and the economy, which is bringing out new tendencies toward thrift in many consumers.


Conveying the facts about peanut Salmonella outbreaks is just one of the tasks Dr. Ben Chapman performs on the front lines of food-safety education. Fresh produce safety, food preservation techniques, on-farm food operations and proper food-service work habits are also in his repertoire.
Photo by Marc Hall
“The resurgence of local foods and home canning is good news for both the health of North Carolinians and the economic health of the state,” Chapman said. “However, there are areas of potential concern related to food safety.”

Chapman hopes that down the road, Cooperative Extension will be able to further engage and interact with consumers on issues related to home food preservation using online social media methods, Web chats and a toll-free number staffed by agents around the state to provide a one-stop shop for all North Carolina home food-preservation inquiries.