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Letter From The Editor: Movie Murders & Cantaloupe Deaths


By now there’s hardly a person on the planet that does not know the name of the Century 16 movie theaters in the hardscrabble city of Aurora, Colorado.

It was there in the first minutes of Friday morning that 70 movie goers were shot, causing at least 12 deaths and 58 injuries among an audience of mostly under 30 people who just wanted to be among the first to see the newly released movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Police took the shooter into custody within minutes of the last shot being fired, ending what was apparently the largest mass casualty shooting in U.S. history.  Police, prosecutors, elected and federal officials stood outside the Century 16 within twelve hours afterwards to promise that justice will be done.

When I went to the curb Saturday morning to pick up the weekend’s Wall Street Journal, the big headline read:  “Theater Rampage Jolts Nation” with the side story: “Film Studio Faces Delicate Balance.”

It told me that at least through the weekend, this story is still going to dominate the news, Sunday talk shows and the like

How interesting.

It got me thinking about Colorado’s last mass casualty event.  No, not the Columbine High School massacre from 13 years ago when 12 Colorado students and one of their teachers were killed by a pair of depraved punks.

Instead  I was thinking about last Fall’s deadly Listeria outbreak caused by contaminated Colorado cantaloupes that caused at least 147 illnesses and at least 32 deaths (likely many more) in 28 states.  Colorado had 40 of those illnesses and at least 8 deaths.

These events are both unique.   The Listeria outbreak was the most deadly food poisoning to occur in the U.S. in the span of a  century.   The “movie murders” killed or wounded more people in one shooting than any other.

Yet, there is no comparing the media attention these two tragedies garnered.  Beyond Denver, you’ve probably just noticed CNN, Fox, and apparently NBC have all continued to broadcast from Aurora this weekend, some around the clock.

In Denver, since the wee hours of Friday morning, every broadcast outlet has been continuously airing coverage of the tragedy.  Commercial radio and television stations dropped all advertising to go with uninterrupted coverage.  The local National Public Radio station has even dropped its insistent fund raising.

Not since 9/11 have I seen anything like it.

Media coverage of last year’s deadly outbreak was far from muted.   Network television and national newspapers generally did an excellent job.   But where the impact of a shooting is immediate, pathogens usually take weeks or months to kill.

Different news events come in for different types of treatment.  It would be unrealistic to expect to see the national media focus on a foodborne illness in the same way they do these shooting massacres.  Food illness outbreaks are just too drawn out.

Put the science aside, and food illness is also a simpler story.  There is no need for endless speculation about a pathogen’s motive.  Pathogens exist to kill and we do not have to think much about that one.

Shootings are about the sick individual pulling the trigger.  In this instance, we have a 24-year doctorial candidate in neuroscience who still liked to fantasize about being a cartoon character.   Before he did the shootings at the movie theater, he wired his apartment with a twisted mess of explosives.

He probably needed his diaper changed more often, and he certainly is not going to get his damage deposit back for the apartment, but he’ll keep the talking heads going for months or years, trying to figure out “what was his head.”  I fear he’ll like that attention, but there is not much anyone can do about it.

That’s the kind of differences that make me glad that I only have to spend my time figuring what bad food does, not what bad people do.

Even though we are talking about something like 4 million people up and down the Front Range,  the way those “degrees of separation” work mean that eventually someone connected to the cantaloupe outbreak will fairly soon run into someone involved in the movie theater shootings.

If they both lost loved ones, they will probably share feelings of that come only with unexpected loss and forever endings.

© Food Safety News
  • mvpolo

    Although you presented some valid comparisons on the media response to these two injurious and deadly situations, you failed to recognize and separate the fact that food born illnesses are generally not premeditated or intentional as was the drama played out by that sicko, James Holmes.

  • Dan –
    In your article, you stated: “There is no need for endless speculation about a pathogen’s motive. Pathogens exist to kill and we do not have to think much about that one.”
    I beg to differ. I don’t know of any pathogen for whom any living creature is a just part of a smorgasbord. A pathogen picks on one or more susceptible hosts and leaves others alone. Any pathogen too ruthless and effective at killing is going to deplete its range of susceptible hosts and be left with no creature to infect. If all a pathogen knows how to be is a terminally lethal pathogen, then it may very well drive itself to its own extinction precisely because of the very high effectiveness with which it dispatches its host(s).
    Scientists have long speculated about a pathogen’s motives. This newsletter is, perhaps, not the place to go into these speculations. Such ruminations have often been rather dark (e.g., selfish genes) and have bordered upon the religious, not that a scientist can’t be religious.
    Food safety folk are a practical bunch. We have problems in need of solutions. As we look for our solutions to food safety problems, we should not be blindsided by the possibility that the problems we face may actually be due to the interplay of much larger forces than we recognize right off the bat.