Food & Drink

Why did this NC professor go to battle with Gwyneth Paltrow?

British newspapers like the Daily Mail were fast to jump on Paltrow.
British newspapers like the Daily Mail were fast to jump on Paltrow.

Dr. Benjamin Chapman didn’t mean to pick on Gwyneth Paltrow. He’s an associate professor at N.C. State University in Raleigh and the state’s food safety specialist for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service – the guy who usually answers nerdy questions on topics like campylobacter contamination or egg refrigeration.

The last thing he expects is international celebrity, especially screaming headlines from the Daily Mail of London and Breitbart News.

The Daily Mail: “Why Gwyneth Paltrow Cookbook Could Put You at Risk Of Food Poisoning.”

The Independent: “Gwyneth Paltrow’s Recipes Could Give You Food Poisoning, Study Says.”

The Sun: “Gwyneth Paltrow and Other Celeb ‘Chefs’ Slammed For Dodgy Food.”

“Things got wild,” he said Monday. “It was pretty hilarious. It’s insane.”

So what did he do? He called Gwyneth Paltrow’s recipes potentially dangerous after an academic paper he co-authored, “Evaluating Food Safety Risk Messages in Popular Cookbooks,” was released last week by the British Food Journal.

Here’s the crazy thing: Chapman and his co-authors didn’t even have Paltrow in mind. They simply used a list of cookbooks from The New York Times best-seller lists in 2013-14 to evaluate how many gave the correct instructions for safe food handling, particularly meats and poultry.

They focused on 29 books by a range of authors, from Ree Drummond of “The Pioneer Woman” to Ina Garten of “The Barefoot Contessa.” Alice Waters was on the list. So were Andrew Weil, Jessica Seinfeld, Rachael Ray, Marcella Hazan and, yes, Paltrow.

Chapman and his co-authors, Katrina Levine and Ashley Chaifetz, evaluated 1,400 recipes on things like whether the recipe gave the correct final cooking temperature and whether it suggested using a thermometer to make sure, instead of relying on less reliable methods such as whether chicken juices run clear.

The results weren’t great: 99.7 percent of the recipes only gave subjective indicators, like firmness of cooked meat and clear chicken juices. Only 8 percent gave the final cooking temperature, and not all of those gave a temperature that was high enough to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Sad, sure, but also routine: As a graduate student in 2004, Chapman took part in a similar study of food-safety mishaps on cooking shows.

“We didn’t get any kind of reaction like this,” he says.

So he never expected what happened: First, he got calls from British journalists who pushed him to name which book was the worst. He couldn’t do that because the study wasn’t set up that way, but he cited a roast chicken recipe from an earlier book by Paltrow, “My Father’s Daughter,” as well as several food-handling faux pax, such as washing raw chicken and not offering final temperatures, in her book “It’s All Good.”

That’s when the headlines started to scream. The storm crossed the Atlantic on Friday, with jumping to Paltrow’s defense: “Honestly, none of this seems too egregious, and we almost wish Paltrow didn’t have to deal with the PR headache.”

Meanwhile, back in Raleigh, Chapman was watching with amazement, especially when he heard it was on “E! News Daily” over the weekend.

“It’s nothing against Gwyneth Paltrow,” he insists. “Our goal in doing research like this is to increase the dialogue around food safety.”

Now, it’s true that there’s something about Paltrow that seems to make her a target for fun. On her website, Goop, she endorses treatments like jade eggs and vaginal steaming. Her books call for high-priced ingredients, like $44 jars of Manuka honey, as if they are affordable, everyday foods.

Chapman is looking at the fuss as a chance to draw attention to things he cares about, like keeping people safe from foodborne illness.

“Last week, for a couple of days, this story mattered internationally,” he says. “I’m good with the attention. No one talks about thermometer use and cross contamination.”

Still, Chapman didn’t mean to draw so much attention to Paltrow herself.

“I hope it’s all good,” he says.

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis