The Elvis of E. Coli Sings About Food Safety

Carl Winter is a toxicologist from the University of California who writes and sings songs that promote food safety. Winter explains how he's combined his passion for keeping Americans safe from food-borne illnesses with a passion for rock music.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Okay, ice cream, barbecue, maybe potato salad, holiday picnics. Have a good time but be a little sensible. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates recently talked with a food safety expert who has a unique way of reminding what can happen when we do not take precautions.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

Even if you didn't live through disco, the intro is totally familiar…

(Soundbite of song Stayin' Alive)

BATES: …although the lyrics are totally different.

Mr. CARL WINTER (Toxicologist, University of California): (Singing) Don't want hepatitis or that gastroenteritis, I'm just stayin' alive, stayin' alive. Scrubbin' off my veggies and I'm heatin' all my burgers up to one-eighty-five, one-eighty-five. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive…

BATES: That's obviously not the Bee Gees. It's Carl Winter. He's a toxicologist at the University of California at Davis and a nationally recognized food safety expert.

Mr. WINTER: In the United States, it's estimated that as many as 76 million cases of food-borne illness occur every year, including 325,000 cases of hospitalization and about 5,000 deaths.

BATES: Winter is on a mission to protect Americans from food-borne illnesses, so a few years ago he made a decision.

Mr. WINTER: Well, I've always been a musician, even though I'm a serious scientist. So I've been developing over the past 10 years, parodies of contemporary songs, changing the lyrics to make them appropriate to educate about various food issues.

BATES: Song parodies are not considered copyright violations, so Carl Winter is free to cover some of rock's most famous songs, like this one from the ‘60s.

(Soundbite of I Want to Hold Your Hand)

Mr. WINTER: (Singing) Before, and after meals, and when you use the can, soap and water, for twenty seconds should be part of your plan…

BATES: Unlike the original, though, it doesn't focus on hand-holding so much as another function.

(Soundbite of song That's How You Wash Your Hands)

Mr. WINTER: (Singing) That's how you wash your hands, that's how you wash your hands.

BATES: So is Carl Winter the Weird Al Yankovic of food safety? Not quite.

Mr. WINTER: The terms that I get more often are the Sinatra of salmonella and the Elvis of E. coli.

BATES: Winter's covers of well-known songs sung in an obviously non-professional voice go from disco, to rock, to hip-hop.

Mr. WINTER: When I perform live, I love to do a rap song. I have my own version of Will Smith's Gettin' Jiggy Wit It called Don't Get Sicky Wit It.

(Soundbite of song Get Sicky Wit It)

Mr. WINTER: (Singing) On your mark ready set let's go. Got a PHD better listen to me. If you don't watch out its RIP. Careful with your food, don't get sicky wit it…

BATES: Winter is the band. He plays all the instruments and records in his spare bedroom. And he gets plenty of bookings at health and science conventions. Winter recently returned from San Antonio, where he got props from a meeting of environmental health specialists. He thinks his positive feedback is because food, enjoyment of it, and fear of a bad experience with it, is a universal bonding agent.

(Soundbite of song Stomachache Tonight)

Mr. WINTER: (Singing) The porcelain gods are gonna hear my song. There's gonna be a stomachache tonight, a stomachache tonight, I know…

BATES: When I ask him how we can avoid that stomachache - or worse - as we enjoy our Labor Day meals, the non-musical part of Winter immediately takes charge.

Mr. WINTER: The most important thing to do is realize that all foods, if mishandled, could have the potential to make you sick. So, particularly when it's really hot outside, keep foods refrigerated. If you're grilling foods, make sure that you grill them to the proper temperature.

BATES: Doing that might let you live to eat another day - robustly.

(Soundbite of song I Will Survive)

Mr. WINTER: (Singing) Did you think I'd lay down and die? Oh no, not I, I will survive, oh as long as I am careful with my food I'll stay alive.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of I Will Survive)

Mr. WINTER: (Singing) Cause I've got all my safety plans I disinfect and wash my hands…

(Soundbite of song, I Will Survive)

Ms. GLORIA GAYNOR (Singer): (Singing) …I've got all my life to live, I've got all my love to give, and I'll survive, oh, go on now go, walk out the door. Just turn around now…

CHADWICK: And dessert just ahead as DAY TO DAY continues.

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