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CBS Depicts ‘Listeria Hysteria’

Sunday’s episode of “The Good Wife,” a drama on CBS now in its third season, used a fictional outbreak of listeriosis apparently just to get a few laughs.

In the real world, a listeriosis outbreak has infected at least 109 people in 23 states, killing 21 and causing a pregnant Iowa woman to miscarry. In the real world, the listeriosis outbreak has been linked to cantaloupes grown in Colorado.

In “The Good Wife,” a combination law and public relations firm is approached by and asked to represent a group called the “Wisconsin State Dairy Guild.”  The spokeswoman from the cheese group says:

“There was an outbreak of listeriosis in a Chicago grammar school four hours ago.”

In addition to knowing that five children and four teachers are ill, the spokeswoman not only knows that it was contaminated cheese that made them sick, but also that it was cheese from “Heather Farms.”

And this “Listeria Hysteria” is already being broadcast on TV news, which has B roll of the school kids projectile vomiting.

Listeria-contaminated cheese is certainly possible, but just about everything else involving the foodborne illness depicted in “The Good Wife” is wrong.  It generally takes a minimum of three days from exposure to the Listeria bacteria to the first signs of illness, and it sometimes takes as long as two months after ingesting the bacteria before symptoms develop. 

And while it is possible that Listeria could infect children, and especially young children, none are involved in the current cantaloupe-related outbreak. The ill range in age from 22 to 96 years, with the median being 77 years. Most are over 60.

In “The Good Wife” episode, the Listeria infections are only a secondary part of the script.   Alan Cumming plays Chicago public relations man Eli Gold. He finds that “Heather Farms” is just a local-sounding brand of a big food company and proceeds to bend the CEO to accept responsibility and apologize for the illnesses.

This is not the first time that the CBS entertainment division has mangled foodborne illness or food safety information on one of its dramas.

In 2009, CSI Miami aired its “Bad Seed” episode, serving up misinformation about both E. coli O157:H7 and Clostridium botulinum.  

In the CSI episode, a fairly decent storyline had the police lab experts tracing back from a lunch that made the characters ill to the water a lettuce grower was using.

But the instant nature of the illnesses and the unlikely possibility of the two different pathogens sharing a lettuce leaf made for glaring errors in the script.

© Food Safety News
  • Hello Dan,
    I am not an advocate of TV using outbreaks of serious situations such as a Listeria-contaminated cheese to improve their rating either but it is TV. If we watch TV (unless it is the news and sometimes not even then) we should not expect that the network is going to get it right or care if they do or don’t. The same thing happens in TV programs that perform medical procedures. Not very often are they correct.
    When I watch TV, I never believe that the information being provided is factual and everyone out there should also realize this.
    Best Regards