Food safety, news, and the slow death of journalism

I’ve been doing food safety news for 16 years – aggregating, analyzing, and everything else. Archives are available online going back to Jan. 1, 1996.

I believe in  the 4 Rs of food safety communications — rapid, reliable, repeated and relevant. I believe in using new media. I believe the rose does go on the front, big guy.

But I don’t believe in using new media to just blindly repeat what government or someone else says. Beyond being scientifically inaccurate, it’s really boring.

Food safety reporting, or what is supposed to pass for it, has become incredibly boring. Recirculating a press release is not journalism. And it’s not about asking questions.

The few remaining mainstream new outlets still have some premise of journalistic procedures, but not all the retwitters, transmitters and translaters, who apparently dominate the on-line world. It’s like talking to a family member or spouse who thinks if they just repeat things more and more, the statement becomes true.

That never ends well.

Michael Gerson writes in this morning’s Washington Post – it still exists – that at its best, the profession of journalism has involved a spirit of public service and adventure … Most cable news networks have forsaken objectivity entirely and produce little actual news, since makeup for guests is cheaper than reporting. Most Internet sites display an endless hunger to comment and little appetite for verification. Free markets, it turns out, often make poor fact-checkers, instead feeding the fantasies of conspiracy theorists from "birthers" to Sept. 11, 2001, "truthers."

I’m not sure where the food safety news thing will shake out. I was reminded by Amy this morning about the need to clearly communicate – written, visual, digital, whatever – and the need for editors, ’cause there sure are a lot of awful writers and communicators out there, and I need editing as much as anyone.

As I’ve said before, this is exactly what happened the first time Amy and I met (below).

Local is not safer

Spring has sprung in Kansas. We all worked in the yard yesterday, and after a couple of cool nights later in the week, the first leafy greens will be going into the garden.

With spring comes the mantra, local is safer.

The idea food that is grown and consumed locally is somehow safer than other food, either because it contacts fewer hands or any outbreaks would be contained, is sorta soothing, like a mild hallucinogen, and has absolutely no basis in reality.

Foodborne illness is vastly underreported — it’s known as the burden of reporting foodborne illness. Someone has to get sick enough to go to a doctor, go to a doctor that is bright enough to order the right test, live in a state that has the known foodborne illnesses as a reportable disease, and then it gets registered by the feds. For every known case of foodborne illness, there are 10 -300 other cases, depending on the severity of the bug.

Most foodborne illness is never detected. It’s almost never the last meal someone ate, or whatever other mythologies are out there. A stool sample linked with some epidemiology or food testing is required to make associations with specific foods.

Robert Brackett, senior vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and a darn fine scientist, told USA Today most foodborne illnesses don’t get noticed because not enough people get sick to alert officials that an outbreak is underway. Undetected outbreaks are more likely with "local" products delivered in small quantities and sold in a small area.

Comparing local with all that other food brings in more tenuous links and numerous erroneous assumptions. To accurately compare local and other food, a database would have to somehow be constructed so that a comparison of illnesses on a per capita meal or even ingredient basis could be made.

But the absence of data doesn’t stop doctrine. JoLynn Montgomery, director of the Michigan Center for Public Health Preparedness at the University of Michigan told the Detroit Free Press today that one solution that is catching on is buying locally grown foods.

"The less distance the food has to travel, the fewer people who touch the food, the less risk you have.”

Local can be microbiologically safe. But repeating ‘local’ while in some sorta peyote buzz doesn’t take care of the dangerous bugs. So wherever food is purchased or even grown, ask some questions:

• how are pathogenic microorganisms managed;
• is wash and irrigation water tested for dangerous bacteria;

• how is fresh produce protected from animal poop;
• what kind of soil amendments are being used and are they microbiologically safe; and,
• are you or your suppliers practicing great handwashing?

That’s a start.

Course announcement: Food Safety Reporting

Food safety reporting will provide students the opportunity to develop news, feature and opinion stories for a variety of media, as well as blog posts and video. Students will receive extensive feedback from several instructors and will have the opportunity to interact with food reporters at national newspapers. Individual pieces will be published through a daily e-publication. Students will have at their availability Apple computers, digital cameras, a high-definition digital recorder, microphone and tripod.

This 3-credit hour course at Kansas State University is offered through the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, and listed as MC 690 Section C. Class meetings are scheduled for Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m.

The instructor:
Dr. Doug Powell is an associate professor of food safety in the department of diagnostic medicine/pathobiology at Kansas State University who has also worked as a journalist since 1987,when he was the editor-in-chief of the University of Guelph student newspaper, The Ontarian, in Canada. He has, and continues, to write for prominent newspapers in Canada, U.S. and Australia, including the N.Y. Times, the Globe and Mail and the National Post.

Graduate students may also take this class with the approval from Dr. Powell for 3 credit hours.