TV’s role in the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak of 2008, which wreaked havoc with the nation’s tomato crop, is the subject of a new academic study by Texas Tech University.

Published in the November issue of Food Protection Trends, produced by the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP), the study uses “framing theory” to examine how TV covered the S. Saintpaul outbreak as first tomatoes, then later jalapenos were thought to be responsible.

Titled “The Summer of Salmonella in Salsa: A Framing Analysis of the 2008 Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Tomatoes and Jalapenos,” the study is based on 71 usable transcripts of news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC from May 1 to Oct. 1, 2008.

Texas Tech researchers Erica Goss Irlbeck and Cindy Akers “found anti-government, pro-agricultural producers, and anti-Mexican produce imports were the most common frames presented by the networks.”

“Specifically, CNN voiced strong disapproval for the manner in which the United States Food and Drug Administration and the Congress handled the crisis,” says the study abstract.  

The S. Saintpaul outbreak began in April 2008 with 57 reported cases in Texas and New Mexico.  It went nationwide over the summer, eventually making at least 1,440 Americans ill in 43 states and the District of Columbia.

Scrambling to find the source of the outbreak, the FDA in the first week of June began warning the public not to eat raw red plum, red Roma, or round red tomatoes.  The agency excluded some tomato growing areas from having anything to do with the outbreak, but the financial damage to the tomato industry was done.

In late July, FDA shifted the blame from tomatoes to jalapeno and Serrano peppers grown in Mexico.  The Texas Tech researchers reported the tomato industry lost $250 million based on what growers thought was “flimsy evidence.”

The TV study found CNN “was also very supportive of tomato growers financial distress while they were unable to market their crop.”

“Many of the stories were simple, informational pieces informing the public about Salmonella’s symptoms and preventive methods, varieties of tomatoes and peppers to avoid, and number of illnesses,” the abstract continued.  “In all, the researchers found most of the news coverage was based on the facts that were available at the time, however, some networks provided personal opinion and speculation.”

Framing theory, according to the researchers, is a “central organizing idea or story line that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events.”   TV journalists must “choose aspects of a perceived reality and place those aspects in more prominent places within the text,” according to framing theory.

Foodborne illness outbreaks have been prominent in the news since the 2006 contamination of bagged spinach, the study says.  The stepped up coverage has occurred even though “few reporters have science training and few scientists have training in communicating with the media in simple and clear language, which creates a problem when trying to tell food safety stories.”

“The mystery of not knowing the true source of the Salmonella was a common element on all four networks.  In 50 of the 71 stories, the unknown source of the Salmonella was a part of the story,” the researchers wrote.

Texas Tech also looked at whom the TV networks turned to for interview sources.  Appearing most often were FDA personnel, tomato growers, consumers, and politicians.  Victims were  interviewed on the air only twice.

Most often interviewed by the networks was David Acheson, then FDA’s assistant commissioner for food protection, who appeared 23 times.  The second most popular network TV interviewee was Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the advocacy group Science in the Public Interest.

DeWaal “appeared to be negatively biased in her views about the safety of the United States’ food supply; however, her information was accurate.”

Mexico was named as the probable source of the S. Saintpaul by CNN only 7 days after the initial FDA warning about tomatoes.  “CNN did air some stories that were responsibly reported and based on the known facts at the time; most of the speculative stories were on ‘Lou Dobbs Tonight.’ “

Both CNN and CBS ran stories critical of FDA and the USA’s food tracking system.  Most stories were sympathetic to tomato farmers.  Dobbs called upon Congress to impeach President Bush over the federal government’s handling of the outbreak.