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Food for Thought

Ben Chapman, an assistant professor and food safety specialist, 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).

The inquisitive folks in the Alumni Association caught up with Chapman yesterday and talked to him about restaurants and some ways to avoid food poisoning. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

How reliable are those sanitation grades in restaurants?

Ben Chapman's research reveals that food gets contaminated in restaurants more often they we'd like to think.

Ben Chapman's research reveals that food gets contaminated in restaurants more often than we'd like to think.

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 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.

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