Sloppy reporting takes a real toll

Few things grab public attention like a food scare, and it appears the media have adopted a new strategy when it comes to reporting on these issues: "Don't confuse consumers with the facts."

The most recent example: "pink slime." This case embodies what sensationalized journalism can do to the very men and women who produce our food.

What the media called "pink slime" is actually finely textured, lean beef trim. This 100 percent pure beef product is made by removing the fat from the pieces of beef that we are familiar with eating, like porterhouse, flank or top round. The lean beef trim is then finely ground and blended with coarse ground beef to lower the overall fat percentage of the product.

For more than 20 years, this technique has been used in order to create very high-protein, low-fat beef that USDA guarantees is safe and wholesome. In 2008, the process was even lauded in a Washington Post article, which noted that the inventor "discovered his process for separating meat from fat had the unintended effect of making the lean beef more alkaline and therefore less conducive to bacteria."

The process not only allows meat processors and retailers to provide lower-fat, ground beef options, but also ensures that wholesome food doesn't go to waste. Use of this technique allows meat processors to capture an additional 12 to 15 pounds of beef per animal.

But all the facts in the world couldn't stop the media's feeding frenzy, leading to misinformed school districts banning the product and consumers concerned about the contents of the burgers they were buying.

In the end, more than 600 people lost their jobs when three of the meat processing plants that made this perfectly safe, wholesome product were forced to close. One company that used this product was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Journalists argue that they have a professional obligation to communicate food safety issues to the public, and I agree with that. But they also have an obligation to communicate those messages accurately and not in a way that inadvertently damages an entire sector of agriculture and food production.

The list of victims is long. Remember when the media reported that tomatoes were contaminated with E. coli, only to change to peppers several weeks later? See any of the recent coverage of sugar, likening it to cocaine, or calling it an addictive cancer causer?

Each of those examples hurt our economy, and they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Peanut farmers are still reeling from what should have been a normal, focused recall of peanut butter sold to food service vendors in 2009. However, as the story grew, consumers stayed away from virtually all major national brands of jarred peanut butter, even though these products were never contaminated or part of the scope of the recall. Some peanut farmers never recovered.

One reason this keeps happening is that most reporters have little farm experience or hands-on knowledge of food production or retailing. The solution: Farm organizations need to take the initiative and reach out to reporters, offering tours and face-to-face interactions with farmers and ranchers.

Conversely, reporters need to cultivate relationships with farm groups, which are among the best sources for food-related topics.

Farmers and reporters should come together to ensure that the next time a food scare hits the press -- and it's bound to happen -- we can all ultimately benefit from it and not unintentionally bite the hand that feeds us.

H. Russell Cross is head of the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University and former administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

This article originally appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on July 4, 2012.

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