Barfblog, Twitter, YouTube – Food Safety Specialist Uses New Tools to Reach Broad Audience

Some people might get the wrong idea when they learn Ben Chapman is a regular contributor to barfblog. He’s not making fun of social unpleasantries. Chapman is N.C. State University’s Extension specialist in food safety, and he’s writing about food safety issues on various places on the Internet. Though he is interested in reaching audiences of all ages and all types of social media networks, he’s particularly drawn to the relatively new, Internet-driven forms of communicating, including blogs, Facebook, YouTube and, most recently, Twitter.

While a student at the University of Guelph, an agricultural school near Toronto, Chapman worked for a professor interested in genetics and whether genetically engineered foods were “risky.” Part of Chapman’s job was collecting media coverage of genetic engineering.

“I was basically surfing the Internet and looking for public discussion of risks,” he says. As he surfed, he realized he was “more interested in the coverage of outbreaks that really made people sick. The ubiquity and magnitude made for a much more compelling story.”

Chapman has made food safety his specialty. He applied to N.C. State partly because of Cooperative Extension’s strong reputation for translating research into applications that help North Carolinians. Chapman came to N.C. State in January 2009 and is an assistant professor in the Department of 4-H Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences. In his role as Extension specialist in food safety, Chapman works with family and consumer science agents throughout the state. He leads training seminars on food safety for employees in retail establishments and for consumers. He also serves as one of the co-chairs of the N.C. Fresh Produce Safety Task Force, which is working with farmers on the production side of the food chain to improve food safety practices.

Another part of his job is to gather data – such as documenting “typical” food handling practices in various settings – to use in designing Extension tools. For his doctoral research, for example, Chapman got foodservice operators throughout southern Ontario to install video cameras in their kitchens to document day-to-day food handling. The study gave him an idea of the frequency and specific food safety actions in large retail kitchens, beyond the snapshot of inspection, he says.

With that knowledge, Chapman develops programs to help Cooperative Extension agents educate retail establishments on how to improve food handling practices. The food industry and government agencies haven’t learned well from the handling – or mishandling – of past outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, Chapman says.

He cites a Salmonella outbreak linked to fresh produce in 2008 and early this year that federal officials have traced to contaminated peanut butter produced at Peanut Corp. of America plants in Georgia and Texas. More than 700 people got sick in the outbreak, and officials have linked the contaminated peanut butter to at least nine deaths. The outbreak resulted in thousands of recalled products. Facing a growing number of lawsuits, the source company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

Even though contaminated peanut butter has caused other large outbreaks in Australia and the U.S. in the past decade, Chapman says that consumers still seem surprised at the recent problem. He says people are asking: “How does this happen to peanut butter?”

Actually, he says, our food system carries the risk of such outbreaks, and everyone from farm to fork has some responsibility to know how the system works and why it occasionally falls prey to contamination. Plenty of researchers are working on new ways to keep our food safe, Chapman says. He wants to see more done to compel everyone in the food chain, including consumers, to practice food safety.

By building the public’s support for better food-safety practices, people in the food business – from university researchers and Cooperative Extension agents to food producers and distributors – can more easily change and improve practices and regulations. With more public discussion of how industry and government address food safety risks prior to outbreaks, consumers may be less likely to stop supporting a particular food enterprise when an outbreak occurs, Chapman says.

How does Chapman get people to really hear the message? How does he get them to “plug in” to food safety? “Apparently, we’re not doing a great job,” Chapman says, citing research statistics that a quarter to a third of the population in every developed country in the world gets sick every year from some type of food-borne illness. When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began tracking cases of Salmonella and other types of contaminated food in 1996, the number of cases dropped for a few years. However, since 2005, the U.S. has recorded the same number of food-related illnesses each year, Chapman says.

And that brings Chapman around to Barfblog and Twitter. Barfblog is an Internet site where Dr. Douglas Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University, and “food safety friends,” including Chapman, provide rapid and brief commentary on food safety issues, post videos, PowerPoint presentations and podcasts. Ben Chapman, N.C. Cooperative Extension food safety specialist, works with traditional and new media.

Research by Chapman and others shows that communication often is done best through networks of people. Therefore, he suggests that food safety experts need to learn to talk to all those networks and – most importantly – tailor the message to each network’s tastes and language. Chapman wouldn’t communicate to church groups in a workshop setting about the safety of food they serve at traditional Wednesday night gatherings the same way he would communicate with people who write or read blogs or those who “tweet.”

Think of Twitter as a sort of rapid-fire e-mail discussion that dozens, even thousands, of people can participate in at the same time. Each Twitter message is strictly limited to 140 characters, and some avid twitterers will send out a dozen messages a day, telling people what they’re buying at the store and what movie they’re seeing that night. Others can also comment on another person’s tweet. Each twitterer can follow other twitterers and vice versa.

“At first, I thought it was kind of dumb,” Chapman acknowledges. “I didn’t see what utility it offered.”

As he has used Twitter more, he’s learned that the new networking system “gets news out a lot quicker than RSS feeds and other traditional news alerts.” Before members of Congress drew attention by tweeting from the floor of the U.S. House, Chapman says that professionals in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies shared news from their worlds through Twitter or other social networking sites. Chapman hopes those Twitter connections will help him better communicate with different audiences in the future.

Chapman thinks the food industry could use Twitter and other social networks to build more goodwill among the growing network of people who want to know more about their food, including how it’s produced and handled. Chapman is currently investigating the collection of food safety and movement information by fresh produce producers across the state and says he could see a farmer integrating traceability information and social networks. This could include tweeting about food safety practices as a way to help engage consumers in risk reduction discussions.