Media myths vs. food safety reality

By Dr. Richard Raymond

A couple of weeks ago I blogged a piece for Feedstuffs titled: “Dude, It’s Beef.” Part of my “beef” was that media sensationalism and repeated use of the words “pink slime” had basically shut down BPI and caused us to discard or redirect to pet food 10-15 lb. of beef per animal slaughtered.

I don’t care if my readers are omnivores or vegetarian, that is their choice. What I DO care about is the wasting of any edible part of any animal raised and slaughtered that could be used to feed us. I think this should be considered reprehensible.

And I do not dislike all media persons. Some are very good investigative journalists, some keep us on our toes and some educate us daily.

Yet, there are those that seek sensationalism and forget about telling the simple truth. Some have a hidden or covert mission behind what they print and/or report. Ideally, reporters should be transparent as to their goals, just like they are demanding the meat and poultry industries be more transparent about how it produces the food we eat.

When I was Nebraska’s State Health Official I had it made. There was only one statewide daily paper and very few television stations. I got to know the reporters who covered health very well, and we got along.

I trusted them, and they trusted me. I respected their deadlines, and they respected my need for an occasional “no comment.” They did not put words into my mouth or misquote me.

I helped them get the information they sought, and they helped me to educate Nebraskans on important health issues.

But the new wave of rookie reporters and social media outlets looking for sensational headlines and stories are misleading many gullible people and having a serious impact on policymakers.

That is why it was so reassuring to learn that Dr. Guy Loneragan, with the support of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn., was able to tell it like it is in the beef industry to 40-50 Hill staffers in D.C. the other day. But can one voice outweigh the daily exposure to the anti-beef messages?

Before anyone says “daily” may be an exaggeration, let me give you some numbers to support my claim.

In 1996 there were approximately nine cases of laboratory confirmed foodborne illnesses caused by listeria, E. coli and campylobacter per 100,000 persons living in the U.S. There were approximately 400 media mentions of foodborne illnesses.

In 2010, foodborne illnesses linked to the three pathogens were down to about 5 per 100,000 persons. However, media mentions of foodborne illnesses skyrocketed to over 1,500.

Overall, the incidence of confirmed foodborne illness from all pathogens is down 23% in the last decade, yet reporting of such has increased by over 200%.

Why? Because reporting bad news sells, and because the current atmosphere in America leads people to believe we are going the wrong direction when it comes to food safety. This has prompted consumers to want to know more about food safety issues.

It is true that part of what is behind this increase in media mentions are the increased recognition of outbreaks because of PulseNet, and I have blogged on this phenomena earlier.

But more of the increase comes from the “pink slime” crowd, or the “expose” of what goes into ground beef, or the comparison of McDonald’s testing requirements vs. the National School Lunch Program requirements, or humane handling videos, etc. Sensationalism sells.

Some in the media have pushed back on my “Dude, it’s Beef” blog saying it is their obligation to report the truth and educate the public.

So I ask them today, if you want to report the truth and educate your readers, where is the media outcry about raw milk?

It seems like every week there is another outbreak associated with this product, and more kids are being hospitalized with Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome because their parents are buying this product and feeding it to them with the mistaken belief it will cure their asthma or their attention deficit disorder or just plain make them healthier.

Wrong. It will kill them, and we have a perfectly safe alternative.

LFTB has made no one ill, and certainly not killed anyone.
I just finished reading a book by David McCullough titled Truman. A picture and a couple of quotes in the book indicate the media has a long history of misleading the public.

One of the most famous examples given in the book is the picture of Harry Truman at a train stop on the way back to D.C. in the early morning of the day after the 1948 Presidential election. In the picture a beaming Truman holds aloft the Chicago Tribune with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

On page 716, reflecting on the headline, T.S. Matthews, the managing editor of Time is quoted as saying: “I think the press has been pretending too much more wisdom than it had any right to claim, and has been getting away with murder for some time. The plain fact now appears to be that … the press hasn’t known what time of day it is for years.”

Well, if the press did not murder BPI, they sure as heck caused serious injury.

Truman himself is quoted, on page 819, as having written that some reporters were: “The prostitutes of the mind in my opinion … and are much more dangerous to the future of mankind than the prostitutes of the body.”

I believe his point was that reporters are for sale. They get paid for what they do, and they probably get bonuses or incentives for increasing sales and the number of readers.

By the way, in the interest of full transparency, I do get compensated for my Feedstuffs blogs, but not one dime is based on number of hits, “likes” or comments. No one tells me what to write or rewrites what I submit. These are all my thoughts, whether you agree with them or not.

And I am obviously an omnivore. Just so you all know.

Dr. Richard Raymond is a medical doctor by training and a former undersecretary of agriculture for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.