More conversations were occurring this week about Food Safety News 2.0. Publisher Bill Marler explained as much as can be explained about this in his column last Sunday.
For the editors, it gets us off our normal schedules to talk about why we do what we do now and how that might change. Since the beginning, we’ve had to define what it is that makes a Food Safety News story. We cannot compete if that definition is too broad, and we are going to disappoint a sophisticated readership base if we leave too much out. How we define our own “niche” will have much to do with our continued success.
If it’s a story about a pathogen that rides along on food and infects people, well’ that’s an easy one. When it’s something that makes people critically ill or kills them within days, it’s not hard to make a decision. We want to be the “gold standard” for outbreaks that involve E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria and other foodborne pathogens.
That’s why we’ve asked reporter Gretchen Goetz to break from her vacation France to go to Germany to cover the current outbreak of E. coli 0104:H4 that has sickened 600, sent 200 to hospitals, and already killed five. Ross Anderson, Mary Rothschild, and Bill Marler also have contributed to our coverage of the German outbreak.
Not all topics fall so easily into the food safety basket. The child obesity epidemic means some kids today are going to die sooner than their parents did. But for the most part, they’ve gotten fat eating and drinking food that is safe to eat. They just eat too damn much, and do not get anywhere near enough physical activity.
Strictly speaking, the child obesity epidemic is not about food safety. We’ve opted to cover the topic anyway because it fits into a food health category our readers want to know about. Still we pick and choose our way through child obesity, just as we do with organics, genetically modified food, food labeling, and on and on.
The goods new is we have made enough of an impact on the world that we have incoming information coming at us like a fire hose in the face. And, that’s also the bad news. We have a lot to sort out everyday just to know where to begin.
So as I think about every week that was, there are always those stories that we did not pursue because in the end we decided the food safety angle just was not there. Here are a couple of examples from the past week:
Thousands of stories were written in the past week about Oprah ending her 25-year run on daytime television. (I never saw a single show, but it must have been good to have lasted that long.) On her last day, 4,700 stories marking the end appeared around the world.
But one story captured my attention and almost caused me to replay the “veggie libel” lawsuit some Texas cattlemen brought against Oprah, a suit she prevailed in against the odds at trial in Amarillo. That one story was in the Amarillo Globe News and it quoted Paul Engler, who sued Oprah and lost. Engler, who chairs Cautus Feeders, was asked by the local newspaper if he’d do it again. “Absolutely, ” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate 35 seconds.”
The Amarillo cattlemen sued Oprah under the Texas law that makes it a civil wrong to “knowingly making a false statement that disparaged a perishable food product,” which came to be called the “veggie libel law.” The judge withdrew that law from consideration before a Texas jury acquitted Oprah on a broader law designed to prevent false or disparaging statements about a specific business — in this case, the cattle owned by the plaintiffs who sued Oprah for $10 million.
Engler not only would do it again, he takes credit for “cleaning up her act.” Oprah’s shootout with Texas cattlemen all stemmed from a show about Mad Cow disease, which when read today does sound a bit over the top But is Engler’s claim true, that Oprah became more responsible or more fair after winning the 27-day courtroom showdown in Amarillo? Like I said, I missed it. But it is not a food safety story.
Jack In the Box
Any story about the nation’s fifth largest fast food business can be made into a food safety story simply by including a paragraph or two about its role in the historic 1993 E. coli outbreak. For a more recent reference, one could just point to Jeff Benedict’s new book “Poisoned,” which is fair and balanced in telling the Jack in the Box recovery story, including the stunning food safety make-over brought about by David Theno.
Jack in the Box was in the business news this past week because, unlike some of its competition, it’s having a hard time coming back from the economic troubles that the country has experienced lately. Interestingly, analysts say Jack has two problems. First, too many of its customer base, mostly males in their 20s and early 30s, are unemployed. Second, they say Jack has too many units concentrated in California, which is a fiscal basket case.
Theno’s work caused many people involved in food safety to recommend Jack In the Box to friends and relatives who cannot give up fast food. “If you have to eat fast food, you could do a lot worse than Jack,” they might say.
But a business story is not a food safety story,so we passed on that one. If Jack ever got into real trouble, we’d cover it. But Jack has been a survivor.
As always, we’d love to hear from readers about those stories we should, and those stories we should not, cover.