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 firstname.lastname@example.org.