Why porn and journalism (and food safety) have the same big pay problem

Everyone loves food safety – as long as it’s free.

I figured that out about 20 years ago, hanging out with food safety professionals at megalomarts who were neglected until there was an emergency.

Insert food safety in places to this piece below from The Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann:

The early days of the Internet were a bonanza for major pornography studios, as the web transformed adult entertainment into an instant, unlimited, and completely private experience — always just a credit card charge and a cable modem away. But what the Internet giveth, the internet taketh away. As the most recent Bloomberg Businssweek recounts in its feature on the rise of the new and controversial .XXX domain, the big production companies have seen their profits shrink by as much as half since 2007, as audiences have fled to aggregators such as XTube and YouPorn that offer up a never-ending stream of free naked bodies.

Stuart Lawley, the entreprenuer behind .XXX, has a plan to try and reclaim some of that lost revenue — micropayments. Per Businessweek:

Next year, ICM plans to introduce a proprietary micropayment system. This service, Lawley promises, will help blue-chip pornographers fight back against the proliferation of free and pirated smut online. "We’re going to do for adult what Apple (AAPL) did for the music business with the iTunes store," he predicts. Consumers who have become conditioned to grainy, poorly shot giveaways, Lawley says, will get reacclimated to paying for higher-quality hard core. Price, quantity, and specificity are key. Rather than the traditional model–$24.99 upfront for all-access monthly memberships–porn consumers will shell out 99¢ apiece for short clips of niche material (akin to buying a favorite song, not the whole album). Perhaps more compelling, people seeking porn on their mobile devices will have a convenient way to purchase a quickie on the run.

Yikes. … Convincing people to pay for to watch sex is a much taller task these days than getting them to pay for a song.

In fact, it’s a bit like getting them to pay for a newspaper. Like the porn studios, big media companies have seen their own profits plummet in the face of free aggregators, amateur bloggers, and the nearly limitless competition supplied by the web. Unsurprisingly, micropayments have been a hot topic in the news industry over the past few years. But so far, they haven’t really taken off.

What holds for journalism in this case holds for sex. In both cases, the competition is so broad that customers are likely to go elsewhere rather than pay. There are, obviously, exceptions in the case of newspapers — the Wall Street Journal has a profitable paywall, and the New York Times appears to be having some early success with its own. But that might be cold comfort for the adult entertainment world.

Apparently not another raw egg outbreak in Australia

This is why I put question marks on some headlines: because something doesn’t seem quite right.

A story dated June 7, 2012 and published by ThePoultrySite – my favorite read while exfoliating in the bath – had this lede:

AUSTRALIA – Currently the NSW Food Authority is investigating 49 cases of Salmonella poisoning, suspected to be from consuming foods containing raw egg.

I dutifully blogged the news, not so much the research, but that there was yet another outbreakof salmonella in eggs which, given the track-record in Australia, would be far from surprising.

An answer arrived a week later in the form of an e-mail from the New South Wales Food Authority: “The information the Poultry CRC used was actually from a media alert posted on our website in 2007 – http://foodauthority.nsw.gov.au/news/alerts-recalls/alert-eggs-and-food-poisoning/.

Oops. Sorry. A table of raw-egg related outbreaks in Australia is available at http://bites.ksu.edu/raw-egg-related-outbreaks-australia.

German science type: E. coli O104 in sprouts exaggerated by media interviewing ‘third-grade’ local scientists

Blame the media is a routine strategy for politicians and scientists (no difference when speaking on the public stage) but one that is rarely valid.

Except most media these days opts for puppy-eyed compliance rather than critical questions.

Dr. Rainer Wessel, director of the CI3 excellence cluster of the German Rhein-Mainz region, managed to keep a straight face as he told an audience in Berlin last week that the death toll in the E. coli O104 outbreak in sprouts last year that killed 53 was “minimal” and paled in comparison to the daily death toll of car accidents.

Risk comparisons are risky.

Because only 53 people died, Wessel viewed the reaction of the public health surveillance system as a success, adding, “Biological threats are complicated. The machine was working pretty well, even if some reactions were slow.” But this can be improved, it depends how much society wants to invest in it.

Maybe something was lost in translation.

According to the Future Challenges website, Wessel argued the media played a big role in frightening the population and creating a unnecessary outburst in society.

“The media are also enterprises, they have to sell too.”

Wessel didn’t mention that during two weeks the public received contradictory information, which wasn’t invented by journalists, but given by government officials.

On the 22th of May 2011, German health authorities said: “Clearly, we are faced with an unusual situation“ and didn’t deliver further information on the origin of the outbreak.

On the 25th, the Health Minister of Hamburg Cornelia Storck declared that the disease was carried by Spanish cucumbers. The German federal government withdrew them from the market causing €51 million in losses to Spanish agriculture, according to the Spanish environment minister. After some tests, the cucumbers were invalidated as the source of the epidemic.

On the 4th of June, German officials alleged that a restaurant in Lübeck, North Germany, was the starting point of the outbreak.

On the 5th, officials pointed to a farm in Lower Saxony being the source of the epidemic, an information that was invalidated and then finally confirmed again on the 10th of the same month.

Wessel maintains that the press should be better informed, which is always good. In case of risk, the Robert-Koch-Institut, the German official health surveillance agency, should receive funding for a small press room in order to give correct information and respond to the questions of journalists, “to avoid that a second or third grade scientist gets interviewed on a local level.”

Social media role in tracking norovirus outbreak at journalism gathering

This sounds like norovirus. And some investigators discovering that youngsters use different ways to communicate.

Michelle Ferguson tried to avoid it, but the rapid onslaught of nausea took its toll on her body when she suddenly vomited in the back seat of a school bus last weekend.

She and her fellow delegates, attending a journalism conference in downtown Victoria, were on their way to the Vertigo nightclub for the final gala when dozens of formally dressed students started vomiting on the buses, in their hotel and at the club.

Almost instantly, messages on Twitter told the stories of people suffering from extreme stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea. Staff at Canadian University Press, who organize the conference every year, contacted health officials as the numbers increased. Within minutes, delegates were asked to return to the Harbour Towers Hotel and Suites.

The well-documented outbreak is considered a successful example of the effectiveness of communicating through social media. The conference’s Twitter hashtag, #nash74, led news agencies to the story, became a slick crisis-control tool and has inspired health officials to consider using similar methods to monitor outbreaks.

"It would be fascinating to learn how to use social media to control and manage outbreaks like they did," said Dr. Murray Fyfe, chief medical health officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority. "I’m sure some were able to limit their exposure because of it."

Messages about the widespread vomiting were sent out on #nash74. CUP staff saw the numbers climbing and shut down the gala.

CUP staff went door-to-door as well, but nothing worked more efficiently than Twitter, according to students.

"I feel a lot more people would have gotten sick without Twitter," Mattern said. "This whole thing would have played out a lot differently."

Methods for tracking and managing outbreaks could change because of the role Twitter played in this incident.

Fyfe and his staff have analyzed the Twitter feed from the conference and could follow how the outbreak spread.

"A traditional investigation would have trouble getting those details," he said. "We’re interested in partnering with people who have expertise in social media to use it as a tool to investigate outbreaks and as a communication tool to control outbreaks."

Contact us any time.

165 sick from norovirus at Canadian student journalism conference up from 75

The Victoria Times Colonist (that’s in British Columbia, in Canada) reports 147 delegates are believed to have contracted norovirus during the final night of a four-day university journalism conference at the Harbour Towers Hotel and Suites, and the final tally has yet to come.

More than one- third of the 370 delegates attending the Canadian University Press national conference went down with severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Eighteen hotel staff also contracted the virus about 24 hours after the first few students showed symptoms, according to hotel management.

"That’s a really significant outbreak," said Dr. Murray Fyfe, chief medical health officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority. "And the fact that we had people who were perfectly well and then became ill after coming into contact with others or got sick when they got home, that’s really typical of norovirus."

The highly contagious virus kept some delegates isolated in their hotel rooms for days before they could check out.

I was just puked on and as a result puked myself, it’s awful; 60 sick as norovirus hits student journalism conference

In what is now being dubbed the “Great Puking Debacle of Nash 74,” student journalists from across the country who attended Canadian University Press’s 74th National Conference (or “NASH”) in Victoria, B.C. were hit with a plague-like puking epidemic Saturday evening at the conference’s gala.

That’s how The Varsity, a University of Toronto student paper, described events after rumors of the vomiting outbreak surfaced on Twitter late Saturday evening, when conference delegates began reporting symptoms and nausea and vomiting episodes after dinner at the Harbour Towers Hotel and Suites in downtown Victoria.

There are reports on Twitter that up to 60 students are ill and 11 have been hospitalized with what is believed to be norovirus.

On Twitter, conference delegates live-tweeted new cases of the infection. As one attendee tweeted, “I was just puked on and as a result puked myself. It’s awful.”

The outbreak is the most recent example of live-tweeted epidemics, a phenomenon studied by scientists last year in response to swine flu trends on Twitter. Evidence of the Nash 74 outbreak’s progression can be found on Twitter under #nash74

My advice to journalism students: don’t go to J-school, don’t listen to advice

 The University of Southern California School for Communication and Journalism asked me months ago for tips on reporting about health issues.

I have no idea why. But I came up with the following:

Five-year-old Mason Jones died a painful and unnecessary death.

Mason’s death was part of an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened 157 people — primarily schoolchildren — in south Wales in Sept. 2005. The source was determined to be contaminated meat supplied to 44 schools by John Tudor and Son, which used the same machine to vacuum package both raw and cooked meats. This practice had been in place some years before an environmental health officer recognized, in a Jan. 2005 routine inspection, the potential for cross contamination that existed. Employees continued the practice through the time of the outbreak while assuring the environmental health officer that a second machine was being repaired. This proved to be a lie.

This tragic outbreak, the largest involving E. coli in Wales’ history, received no media coverage in the U.S.; neither did a public inquiry into the outbreak by Professor Hugh Pennington that detailed multiple failures not only with the butcher (meat processor), but with the school board and food safety inspectors.
Outbreaks of foodborne illness are not acts of god: they are invariably the culmination of multiple mistakes by multiple actors from farm-to-fork, ones that are often glossed over in press releases.

Around the world, there are daily outbreaks of foodborne illness, each providing a wealth of journalistic material — tragedy, bad management, indifferent oversight. Yet most are ignored.

And in a society obsessed with food porn, terrible food safety advice can be found anywhere.

There has been some excellent media coverage of microbial food safety issues since the 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to Jack-in-the-Box that killed four and sickened more than 600; there also has also been some terribly misleading coverage.

Among the unchallenged food safety stories, however, is that more government involvementmeans fewer sick people.

While the Internet and the mainstream media were all excited about the passage of new federal food safety legislation earlier this year, it doesn’t stand my story test: will it make fewer people barf?

When it comes to the safety of the food supply, I generally ignore political chatter, as well as the Internet commentaries and conspiracy theories. As the Government Accountability Office pointed out in a 2008 report, “The burden for food safety in most … countries lies primarily with food producers, rather than with inspectors, although inspectors play an active role in overseeing compliance. This principle applies to both domestic and imported products.”
It’s nice that food safety is once again a priority in Washington and that politicians are trying to set a tone. But chatting doesn’t mean fewer sick people — actions do.

Other food safety nosestretchers include:

1. We (insert country, state, region) have the safest food in the world;
2. The majority of food-borne illness is due to mistakes in the home (nope, that’s just a way to blame consumers);
3. We’ve been making or serving food this way for (fill in the number of decades) and never made anyone sick;
4. I got food poisoning from the last place I ate; and,
5. Food safety is simple.

And if you are assigned to a look-where-we found-bacteria story — on subway seats, grocery carts, money, sex toys, computer keyboards — talk to someone reputable to place the findings in context. There are bacteria everywhere. Only some of them make people sick.

Microorganisms that make people sick exist in whatever kind of food production and distribution system that smart humans come up with.

Unfortunately, consumers can’t really vote with their food dollars, because retailers are loathe to market food safety. The marketing void is instead filled with a steady stream of local/natural/sustainable/organic/raw food that may be worthy lifestyle choices but have nothing to do with food safety. People respond in surveys they perceive such food to be safer — in the absence of any microbiological data. Grocery stores say all food is safe, yet the many outbreaks of food-borne illness suggest otherwise. The best farms, processors, retailers and restaurants should brag about their microbial food safety efforts and accomplishments. With so many sick people each year, there’s an attentive audience out there.

I hope you’ll constantly strive to expand your network of sources; be wary of vanity presses, and seek out primary references and sources. The stories are there.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a professor of food safety at Kansas State University and the publisher of barfblog.com. He can be contacted at dpowell@ksu.edu.

Bad food safety reporting III: tips for a pathogen-free kitchen

A story that is ostensibly about tips to reduce foodborne illness in the home becomes a mish-mash of federal legislation, local is better, and stuff that is just plain wrong.

And it’s from the New York Times.

Some of the lowlights:

Wash all produce: Even if you are going to peel a cucumber or melon, give it a good scrub so you don’t transfer bacteria from the knife or peeler to the part you are going to eat. Most important, wash all lettuce, even if it comes in a bag that says triple washed.

Scientists have said the re-washing process is more likely to cross-contaminate the pre-washed greens with whatever crap was previously in a sink. The paper is in Food Protection Trends and available here.

Learn to love well done Cooking thoroughly is the best way to eliminate harmful bacteria from meats and poultry. For a list of temperatures for various foods, check the Web site Foodsafety.gov, and don’t rely on your eye alone. Pick up an inexpensive meat thermometer (no need for the expensive digital models) next time you are in the grocery store.

It doesn’t have to be well-done, just cooked to the proper temperature. A digital thermometer is easier to read. And the key is to use a tip-sensitive thermometer.

Understand organic: Organic doesn’t necessarily mean safer (but) … there is something reassuring about buying from a small organic farmer at a local stand or farmers’ market, even if it does cost more.

No, it is not more reassuring. Show me the data.

A separate Times story, a so-called Recipe for Health for Orange Chicken With Vegetables calls for “1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast, preferably from a small producer of free-range chickens, cut into 1/4-inch thick by 1-inch long pieces.” No reason why, other than some food porn preference; no mention of salmonella and cross contamination; no mention of temping final product with a tip-sensitive thermometer.

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).

Top 5 food-safety questions journalists should be asking

The editor of Nieman Watch at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University tracked me down in Florida a couple of weeks ago — it’s not hard, I’m always plugged in, zing — and asked me to pen the following, which he greatly improved with some editing. Below, Powell’s take on the top-5 food-safety questions journalists should be asking.

Food safety is not a trivial issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that up to 30 per cent of individuals in developed countries acquire illnesses from the food and water they consume annually. Active disease surveillance by U.S., Canadian and Australian authorities suggests this estimate is accurate.

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.

There has been some excellent media coverage of microbial food safety issues since the 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to Jack-in-the-Box that killed four and sickened over 600; there has also been some terribly misleading coverage.
Reporters interested in covering this important story should be asking these five questions:

1. Will more government involvement mean fewer sick people?

While the Internet and the mainstream media were all excited about the potential passage of new food safety legislation by the U.S. House in early August — it passed — I was hanging out with some food safety dudes at Publix supermarkets HQ in Lakeland, Florida. And I saw far more in Lakeland that would impact daily food safety than anything the politicians, bureaucrats and hangers-on were talking about.

When it comes to the safety of the food supply, I generally ignore the chatter from Washington, as well as the Internet commentaries and conspiracy theories. If a legislative proposal does emerge, such as the creation of a single food inspection agency, or the bill that passed the House – and just the House –  I ask, Will it actually make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

As the Government Accountability Office pointed out in a report a year ago, “The burden for food safety in most … countries lies primarily with food producers, rather than with inspectors, although inspectors play an active role in overseeing compliance. This principle applies to both domestic and imported products.”

Publix, with over 1,000 supermarkets, its own processing plants, and thousands of food products moving through its shelves, can’t afford the luxury of chatter. After a  visit to headquarters in Lakeland, Fla., I went to the local Publix in St. Petersburg Beach to verify what I’d heard at HQ. Sure, the bosses know food safety, but do the front-line staff?

I ordered some shaved smoked turkey breast from the deli, and the sealable bag the meat was delivered in bore the following message:

“The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses; Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase; And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase.”

This was the first time I’d seen a retailer provide information to consumers on the accurate shelf-life of sliced deli meats. It didn’t require Congressional hearings; it didn’t require some hopelessly-flawed consumer education campaign; it required the company’s food safety officials to say, this is important, let’s do it.

Same thing with fresh fruits and vegetables — the leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. for the past decade.

Late last month, U.S. regulators announced plans to strengthen safety protocols for fresh fruits and vegetables — except those plans are simply extensions of plans published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998. Plans and guidelines don’t make food safe: people do.

It’s nice that food safety is once again a priority in Washington and that politicians are trying to set a tone. But chatting doesn’t mean fewer sick people — actions do.

Journalists can hold politicians, producers and industry accountable. There are lots of plans and proposals, but will any of them translate into fewer sick people?

2. Is local/natural/sustainable/organic/raw food really any better than other types of food?

A U.S. government extension agent with a PhD and at a prominent university e-mailed the other day to ask if I had any data on foodborne illness from farmers’ markets because she was preparing for a presentation and was, “trying to make the case that there are very few cases of foodborne illness from local foods relative to our globally based food system.”

But the idea that food grown and consumed locally is somehow safer than other food, either because it contacts fewer hands or any outbreaks would be contained, is the product of wishful thinking.

Barry Estabrook of Gourmet magazine recently invoked the local-is-pure fantasy, writing: “There is no doubt that our food-safety system is broken. But with the vast majority of disease outbreaks coming from industrial-scale operations, legislators should have fixed the problems there instead of targeting small, local businesses that were never part of the problem in the first place.”

But whenever you hear someone say there’s “no doubt” in this field, you should be filled with doubt. Foodborne illnesses are vastly underreported. Someone has to get sick enough to go to a doctor, the doctor has to be bright enough to order the right test, the state has to have the known foodborne illnesses listed as reportable diseases, and so on. For every known case of foodborne illness, there are an estimated 10 to 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.

Maybe the vast majority of foodborne outbreaks come from industrial-scale operations because the vast majority of food and meals is consumed from industrial-scale operations. 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.

Then there are the whoppers that are repeated daily, somewhere, like this one by raw milk advocate Sally Fallon, who said, “Raw milk is like a magic food for children. … Without the green grass, you’re missing a lot of vitamins. Also, it’s much safer. When cows are eating green grass, you don’t find pathogens in their milk.”

With such statements, public advocacy becomes public health risk.

The natural reservoir for E. coli O157:H7 and other verotoxigenic E. coli is the intestines of all ruminants, including cattle — grass or grain-fed — sheep, goats, deer and the like. The final report of the fall 2006 spinach outbreak identifies nearby grass-fed beef cattle as the likely source of the E. coli O157:H7 that sickened 200 and killed four.

A table of raw dairy outbreaks is available at http://www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/articles/384/RawMilkOutbreakTable.pdf. Kids are often the ones that get sick.

And be wary of claims that food is local.

3. Is that food safety advice really accurate?

Everyone eats, so everyone’s an expert when it comes to food. Food, Inc. may be a popular movie among the foodies, but has some terrible food safety advice. Microorganisms that make people sick exist in whatever kind of food production and distribution system we smart humans come up with. But government, industry and academic advice can often be of limited use — or wrong. Do people really need to wash their hands for 20 seconds — or will 10 seconds suffice? It will.  Does the water have to be warm? No. Are paper towels better than blow driers at removing pathogens? Yes, it’s the friction that counts. Food safety types argue about these things all the time. If someone says, “food safety is simple, just follow this advice,” don’t believe it. Question everything.

4. With all of the attention, resources and talk, why hasn’t there been a reduction in the estimated incidence of foodborne illnesses in the past five years?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported in April 2008 that foodborne illness remains a significant public health issue in the U.S., with Salmonella infections increasingly problematic: “Although significant declines in the incidence of certain foodborne pathogens have occurred since 1996, these declines all occurred before 2004,” the CDC reported.

“Outbreaks caused by contaminated peanut butter, frozen pot pies, and a puffed vegetable snack in 2007 underscore the need to prevent contamination of commercially produced products. The outbreak associated with turtle exposure highlights the importance of animals as a nonfood source of human infections. To reduce the incidence of Salmonella infections, concerted efforts are needed throughout the food supply chain, from farm to processing plant to kitchen.”

The CDC data show existing efforts to reduce foodborne illness have stalled. Signs stating “Employees must wash hands” may not be the most effective way to compel good food safety behavior. New messages using new media should be explored to really create a culture that values microbiologically safe food.

5. Why don’t producers, processors, and retailers market microbial food safety directly to consumers?

There’s lots of marketing of food safety, but it is done indirectly. One of the reasons people buy organic/natural/local/whatever is they perceive such food to be safer — in the absence of any microbiological data. Grocery stores say all food is safe, yet the weekly outbreaks of foodborne illness — the ones that consumers hear about — suggest otherwise. The best farms, processors, retailers and restaurants should brag about their microbial food safety efforts and accomplishments. With so many sick people each year, there’s an attentive audience out there.

Dr. Douglas Powell is an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University. He also runs barfblog.com, a blog about food safety.