let's talk farm animals

Bad, bad big city press

Guest Blog by Steve Kopperund,  Ag issues consultant


I’ve decided the general media are pretty much amateurs or hacks when it comes to accurately covering issues in food and agriculture. In no other area of our lives – including the arcane world of high finance – does a single profession get it wrong so much of the time. I’m allowed to say this out loud because I was a general newspaper reporter before I was an agbiz reporter/editor before I was a lobbyist.

I’m not talking about self-proclaimed “journalists” who go into a story with a definite opinion and a desired outcome, then proceed to winnow the facts and edit the video to fit that bias. Think “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric” and on-farm use of antibiotics. I’m talking about reporters and editors who are too lazy or too ignorant – or both — to get it right, and do little to overcome those two shortcomings.

The latest and best example I can give you is the general media coverage of the fourth U.S. case of BSE – and the first in nearly a decade – announced April 25. That cow, nearly 11 years old, tested positive for atypical BSE, caught during routine USDA BSE surveillance testing. “Atypical” means it’s more than 99% certain the animal did not get the disease from eating diseased mammalian tissue, and may have spontaneously developed the cattle brain disease. That last part’s still the subject of scientific debate.

USDA’s Chief Veterinarian Dr. John Clifford provided a comprehensive briefing to the media. All of the facts which could be shared at the time were shared; all questions were answered. Subsequent reports on the results of cohort testing, etc., have flowed from Clifford’s office almost daily. Clifford, at least in the subsequent industry briefing, stressed several times the case was atypical and what that meant, that the animal was tested at a renderer as part of regular and routine USDA testing, was never presented at slaughter so no meat or byproducts entered the food or feed chains, and that beef and milk were safe. In short, the system worked.

Instead of presenting a relatively minor news story, several general media outlets ran with stories patently designed for shock and awe. Either explicit or implied food safety issues were raised where none exist. In one network TV report, the word “atypical” and its meaning were never used to describe the ancient cow found in California; in another network report, the “on-air talent” flat out stated there was a “break in the feed rule,” referring to the federal regulation banning the refeeding of mammalian tissues to bovine animals. Several major newspapers simply parroted activist criticism of USDA’s testing program under which about 40,000 animals are tested yearly. None of the examples cited qualify as objective reporting or even good entertaining-it’s-so-bad yellow journalism. To be fair, the best, most professional story I read – objective, balanced, factual and understandable by the layperson – was in USAToday.

So bad and so inaccurate was most of the popular press reporting that USDA took the almost-unheard-of step of issuing the federal government equivalent of a media slap down. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s press

Science helps make our food safer

secretary, Courtney Rowe, sent to the media and released generally a polite but firm April 26 rebuke in which she took the press to task for harping on how much testing USDA does – a focus “(which) produced an unfortunate amount of misleading reporting” – ignoring other equally important components of the U.S. government’s BSE prevention and detection system. She also reissued to all the press all the information the department had already issued. They can’t say they weren’t warned.

For me, it wasn’t just the testing issue. The general media ignored USDA testing rates are 10 times greater than World Animal Health Organization recommendations; ignored the FDA’s publicly reported 99%-plus compliance rate among U.S. feed and rendering companies with the federal ban on refeeding of mammalian tissue to bovines; ignored the 99% reduction in global BSE cases since the height of the European outbreak in the 1990s, and pretty much ignored the context of U.S. cases – one in a Canadian import, and three atypical cases. And just for grins, a comparison to other industrialized nations would have added some context, as in Japan’s had 36 cases and Canada’s had 20.

The story should have been about a good, strong industry-government collaboration that’s resulted in a prevention/detection system that works. The story should have been about a system assuring safe food. The story should have been based on the facts of the matter, not on scare tactics that suck in TV viewers or sell newspapers.

Should we talk “lean finely textured beef” and how well the general media did on that one? I rest my case.


Posted by FFC on May 7th, 2012 :: Filed under Animal health,Food safety,Media,Regulations
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