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Bad News Rules on Food-Borne Illnesses
April 30, 2004
Trevor Butterworth
Most of the media pass on sharp decline in E. coli infections. (updated May 3)

“When good food turns bad” is a staple of health reporting — and rightly so, since food-borne pathogens affect millions of people each year. But among the roster of unwanted and unpleasant dinner guests, some bacteria are more deadly — and more newsworthy — than others. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 61 people die each year from E. coli 0157:H7, a bacterium most commonly spread by contaminated ground beef and consumed by way of undercooked hamburgers.

As E.coli takes its heaviest toll on the very young, the image of hamburgers killing children has proved an obvious news peg for the importance of food safety. Which is why the CDC’s announcement on April 29 that E.coli infections have dropped 36 percent from 2002 to 2003 should have generated plenty of media coverage.

Yet a day after the CDC released its data, the only national newspaper to devote an entire news story to the decline was USA Today. The Washington Post, in a rather baffling editorial decision, buried the news in the second half of a story titled “Drug Disease Gonorrhea on Rise; CDC Suggests Change in Treatment for Gay, Bisexual Men. While the CDC was the source of both news items, it is doubtful that readers interested in food safety would have intuited the connection.

It took a regional newspaper, the Sun Sentinel, to point out the reason for the drop in food-borne illnesses: improved inspection and better practices at meat and poultry processing plants. In fact the CDC’s announcement, which also noted declines in other food-borne infections, is a testament to collaboration between the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which has created new policies to combat food pathogens, and the food industry, which has adopted new technologies and better practices.

This is particularly noteworthy, given that the food industry has taken most of the blame for outbreaks of food-borne illness, according to a longitudinal study of media coverage of food safety by the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

May 1 brought a little more coverage: the Milwaukee Sentinel Journel and the Oregonian both ran substantial news stories, while the Los Angeles Times ran a 101-word news brief.

Another item of good news on food regulation received even less coverage than the CDC report. A study by Ohio State University showed that 90 percent of recalled meat in 2002 was a result of discoveries by Department of Agriculture inspectors, meat packers and processors. Given that the figure was just 41 percent in 1998, the Columbus Dispatch noted that "more problems are being caught before they reach dinner tables."

Good News = No News
The CMPA study also shows that this lack of interest in positive news is in keeping with the media’s approach to covering E. coli from 1996 to 2003. Even though the rate of infection has steadily declined since 1996, coverage has been largely driven by the occurrence of bad news: Media alarm over E. coli spikes when there is an outbreak of infection or a major recall of meat; then it disappears in the absence of a major health scare. As a result, the public is presented with a view of risk that, increasingly, bears little relation to reality.


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