Dean Cliver never expected to become famous as the man who saved wooden cutting boards. But that's science for you - you never know where it's going to take you.
Working on this week's story about kitchen cleaning gave me an excuse to call lots of scientists. I always love those guys: People who spend their lives studying very small things that make you very sick are always a blast. Seriously. For instance, Doug Powell of Kansas State University founded a Web site called The Barf Blog . It's fascinating reading, if you have a strong stomach.
Powell kept telling me the trick to understanding how to keep your kitchen safe is "be the bug -- think like the bug." Hard to do for the average person, but a fun game for a rainy Saturday night.
I also talked to Cliver, a microbiologist at the University of California-Davis who is a legend in the food-safety world. Cliver is 76, but he's still studying the involvement of viruses in foodborne illness.
His connection to cutting boards was an accident. In the early 1990s, it was common wisdom that modern plastic cutting boards would be much cleaner than those scratched-up old wooden cutting boards that were standard in American kitchen.
In 1993, a young woman from Turkey was at the university, looking for something to do while her husband was working on his PhD. So Cliver put her to work in the lab, running tests on wood and plastic boards to see which was most hospitable to bacteria. Everybody knew the answer, but in science, you check everything, right?
"She came back and said, 'I must be doing something wrong. I can always get the bacteria back from the plastic but I can never get them back from the wood.'" She wasn't doing anything wrong at all: It turned out that microscopic knicks and cuts on plastic boards are great places for bacteria to thrive. But even if bacteria get down into cuts and cracks on the wood, they can't live there. The chemistry of the wood kills them.
"Wood is the safety factor," Cliver told me. "If the food juice gets into wood pores, it doesn't come out alive."
Cliver is still amused that he's the go-to guy on the subject. "My principle claim to fame has been viruses." He's been working on them since 1962, and he's finally being vindicated, he says. When he started, no one wanted to consider viruses. Now, scientists are starting to recognize that viruses play an even bigger role in foodborne illness than bacteria. "Noroviruses causes more illness than all the bacterial causes combined," he says.
It takes a scientist to sound downright tickled about that.