Food safety news, like other news, is repetitive, superficial, dubious
Posted: January 12th, 2010 - 9:20am
Most of what passes for food safety news today is recycled pablum, devoid of any news or analytical content, regurgitating and amplifying food safety facts of dubious merit.
There are exceptions, and they are primarily found at the remaining daily newspapers with investigative reporters. Print has always had a better capacity to lead the public discussion on a variety of issues, including food safety. The Project for Excellence in Journalism, an arm of the Pew Research Center, found in looking at six major story lines that developed over one week in July 2009, 83 per cent of the reports in local news media “were essentially repetitive, conveying no new information.”
The Internet amplifies bullshit.
Despite diminished resources of established news organizations, “of the stories that did contain new information, nearly all, 95 per cent, came from old media — most of them newspapers. These stories then tended to set the narrative agenda for most other media outlets.”
Dorothy Nelkin figured this out a couple of decades ago. But what’s disturbing is the Pew folks found that even the reporting done by traditional media was driven mostly by government statements rather than journalists’ own digging.
The study offered support for the argument often made by the traditional media that, so far, most of what digital news outlets offer is repetition and commentary, not new information.
CBS News is not a small media outlet. But it’s TV/radio, and details get lost.
In a series of stories that ran Jan. 9, 2010, CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker reported that every year 33 per cent of Canadians get sick from what they eat. In the U.S., it's 25 per cent. But in England it's only 2 percent and in France just 1 per cent. In both places food is grown more locally and on a smaller scale than in North America.
This is a comparison of estimated levels of foodborne illness in Canada and the U.S., with actual levels in France and the U.K.
This is not an argument for local and small-scale agriculture; this is an argument for journalists to better figure out what the f**k they are doing. And the editors who let this crap pass.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is clear that an estimated 30 per cent of individuals in developed countries acquire illnesses from the food and water they consume each year. U.S., Canadian and Australian authorities support this estimate as accurate (Majowicz et al., 2006; Mead et al., 1999; OzFoodNet Working Group, 2003) through estimations from available data and adjustments for underreporting. And food safety nerds everywhere are anxiously awaiting a CDC update on those 11-year-old Mead, et. al numbers, which will probably appear in March. WHO has identified five factors of food handling that contribute to these illnesses: improper cooking procedures; temperature abuse during storage; lack of hygiene and sanitation by food handlers; cross-contamination between raw and fresh ready to eat foods; and, acquiring food from unsafe sources
The same CBS story cites Jack Vessey, the fourth generation in his family to farm his land in Holtville, Calif., 8,000 acres of leafy greens. After the 2006 spinach outbreak, likely caused by unsanitary field conditions, he joined a farming cooperative - the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement - which agreed to a set of voluntary standards in the field for irrigation, fertilization and sanitation, including hairnets, gloves and frequent hand-washing.
Vessey hired a food safety manager and estimates the extra cost to keep his fields contamination-free is about $250,000 a year, but another e-coli outbreak could cost farmers billions in lost sales.
Why Vessey and other California leafy-green farmers failed to take the food safety steps he is bragging about now -- before 4 died and 200 became sick in the E. coli O2157:H7 outbreak in spinach in 2006 – is baffling. There had been 28 pervious food safety outbreaks on leafy greens like spinach and lettuce, with plenty of FDA warnings.
Another CBS story based on a self-reported telephone poll – why do survey firms always call during dinner when only the most committed and concerned would actually answer -- found that just one in three Americans are very confident that the food they buy is safe, although the vast majority are at least somewhat confident that their food is safe. Self-reported surveys, especially when it comes to food, are complete garbage. Yet the findings have been repeated and amplified through the Internet. People still need to eat, and unlike the fashionable foodies, many people just go to the store and worry more about the baby crying.
Majowicz, S.E., McNab, W.B., Sockett, P., Henson, S., Dore, K., Edge, V.L., Buffett, M.C., Fazil, A., Read, S. McEwen, S., Stacey, D. and Wilson, J.B. (2006), “Burden and cost of gastroenteritis in a Canadian community”, Journal of Food Protection, Vol. 69, pp. 651-659.
Mead, P.S., Slutsjer, L., Dietz, V., McCaig, L.F., Breeses, J.S., Shapiro, C., Griffin, P.M. and Tauxe, R.V. (1999), “Food-related illness and death in the United States”, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 5, pp. 607-625.
OzFoodNet Working Group. (2003), “Foodborne disease in Australia: Incidence, notifications and outbreaks: Annual report of the OzFoodNet Network, 2002”, Communicable Diseases Intelligence, Vol. 27, pp. 209-243.
Powell, D.A., Jacob, C.J., and Chapman, B. 2009. Produce in public: Spinach, safety and public policy in Microbial Safety of Fresh Produce: Challenges, Perspectives, and Strategies ed. by X. Fan, B.A. Niemira, C.J. Doona, F.E. Feeherry and R.B. Gravani. Blackwell Publishing.