With last week’s Senate action on major food safety legislation, mainstream media coverage of food safety has picked up considerably, bringing a flurry of entertaining and even absurd articles and cable news clips to a discussion already plagued by false rumors and paranoia.
Newspapers across the U.S. covered the historic Senate passage of the FDA Food Safety Modernization act, many hailing the bill as a long-overdue move towards revamping food safety laws that haven’t been significantly updated in over seven decades.
Network newscasters reported along the same narrative. The Early Show on CBS called the 73-25 vote for passage “a rare display of bipartisanship” in an era of political gridlock.
Newscasters emphasized that with little time remaining in the lame duck session, the bill would need to move quickly to the House, which passed a stronger version of the legislation in July 2009, so that President Obama could sign the bill before the end of the year. CBS reported that with time constraints the House would have to pass the Senate version “word for word” if it is to become law.
But as Food Safety News reported last week, the Senate version is in serious jeopardy because it contains a provision raising fees that is technically unconstitutional. Article 1, Section 7 of the law of the land says that revenue-raising provisions must originate in the House. It remains unclear whether the House will pass a version amendable to the Senate in the next week or two, or whether Congress will have to start over in the 112th session in 2011.
After the constitutional snafu came to light, a number of headline gems cropped up: “Oops, they did it again: Another unconstitutional bill,” “Why is food safety a partisan issue?,” “Lobbyists Feast on Food Safety Bill,” to name a few.
The talking heads
The real mud-slinging and name-calling came by way of cable news, a medium that oftentimes devolves into infotainment. Radio and TV talk show host Glenn Beck, who has an audience of millions, lambasted the bill as a government takeover of the food supply last week on right-leaning FOX News.
“Do you have your phone handy? Because I want you to call Washington, right now. Congress is working hard to make sure that your food is completely safe. Now, you may be thinking to yourself: Glenn, my food is already safe. But, that’s just how stupid you are,” Beck says sarcastically. “Apparently our food is very unsafe.”
During his diatribe, Beck holds up a copy of S. 510, which appears to have a couple hundred extra pages added to it for effect.
“Who has a safer food supply than us and feeds 300 million people?” posits Beck. “Is there a big problem I don’t know about? I know there was a big problem with spinach a couple years ago and guacamole, or avocados, or something. I think that was quickly resolved with minimal, or no interruption, to our normal food supply.”
Beck concedes that “we can always improve,” in the same breath as he shreds the bill, calling it a “massive, massive expansion in government regulation.”
“If you think your food prices have already gone up, oh just wait…” he says, adding that the company that stands to benefit from the bill is the widely criticized agriculture giant Monsanto. “They love this bill, they’re in favor of this bill.”
As niche environmental publication, Grist, said last week, in its most recent online food safety bill discussion: “Some advocates are still sending emails, Tweets, and Facebook posts insisting that the Senate did Monsanto’s bidding by crafting S. 510. (We’re among the company’s biggest critics, but even we can’t see the connection on this one.)”
“They control your food, they control you,” added Beck, referring to the government. “This is about control and, in the end, starvation.”
The Ed Show, on left-leaning MSNBC, shot back at Beck’s assertions on the air–and over the radio air waves. On the radio Beck called what Congress is doing on food safety “criminal,” calling the chamber out of its mind for a move that he believes will raise food prices, “this is what Stalin did.”
“Glenn, if you wanted to talk about higher prices, let’s talk about the billions of dollars American farmers and manufacturers lose in cases of tainted eggs, spinach, and meat. Now, you don’t think that that leads to higher prices, do ya?,” retorts host Ed Shultz.
“Preventing food contamination means preventing financial losses, as well as illness, and death,” adds Shultz, who goes on to call Beck’s rant “contaminated psycho talk.”
Faux-media superstar Jon Stewart took the cake as far as absurd media last week with his segment: “The Food, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
“What!? The Senate did a…thing?” joked Stewart. “They passed real, actual legislation? About food safety…”
Stewart’s The Daily Show ran media clips featuring Fox News and CNN outlining the tenets of the bill, which include more frequent inspections of food facilities.
“Ah more frequent inspections. I guess what, like, twice a month instead of [once]. You know what I mean?” asked Stewart sarcastically. He then featured a clip of a CNN reporter explaining that FDA inspections do not occur very often.
“It’s really quite amazing right now that a lot of FDA inspectors, they might not go to a facility but perhaps even once a year,” says a correspondent for CNN’s American Morning. (According to the Government Accountability Office, high-risk domestic food facilities receive an inspection, on average, once every five years.)
To that news, comedy-master Jon Stewart slowly spits out the hot dog he was eating on set. “I should have known you can’t make flavor like that under proper supervision,” he said, pointing to his all-American hot dog. Later in the segment, Stewart spits out Spaghetti-Os after running a montage featuring a bevvy of food recalls over the last two years.
“Oh I see, we [passed the bill] because our food is killing us,” adds Stewart somewhat sarcastically.
Stewart also took shots at Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and political commentator Beck for bashing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “That damn FDA, founded a hundred years ago, just to make sure the milk bottles you got were full of milk and not white paint and rat [feces].”
“But, at least they passed something,” shouts Stewart–a sentiment expressed by almost every major newspaper that ran a story about the bill. Across the board, media have recognized that in the current contentious political climate, the 3-1 bipartisan vote in the Senate was notable.
Of course, Stewart also mocks the constitutional snag that has the bill at a standstill: “I jinxed it, didn’t I?”