June 12, 2011

AP Waffles on Calling Source of European E. Coli an ‘Organic’ Farm

On Wednesday evening in Europe (12:31 p.m. Eastern Time), in what it was already describing as “the world’s deadliest known outbreak of E. coli,” the Associated Press reported that “No cause for the outbreak has yet been found,” while farmers on the continent were petitioning the EU for hundreds of million of dollars in compensation.

By midday European time (6:27 a.m. ET) on Friday, June 10, it was known (“Sprouts are cause of E. coli outbreak”) that the contaminated food had come from Germany, when investigators “linked separate clusters of patients who had fallen sick to 26 restaurants and cafeterias that had received produce from the organic farm.”

It is not my intention to get involved in a debate on farming techniques. But it seems obvious that if the outbreak came from an “organic” farming enterprise, follow-up stories should continue to mention that origin. Failures to mention organic farming have occurred often enough at the AP that one begins to wonder if those omissions are deliberate — especially when coupled with the wire service’s complete lack of coverage identifying skepticism, of which there is plenty, about the safety of organic farming practices.

Here’s a rundown of the AP’s E. coli stories since Friday’s discovery which do and do not bring up the outbreak’s organic farm source (dates and times are as when last read by yours truly at about 5 p.m. ET).

These reports DO mention the organic farm source:

  • June 10, 4:07 p.m.; Mary Clare Janonick and Maria Cheng; “Like sprouts? Experts say cook first to be safe” — The organic farm is mentioned in Paragraph 9 of 19.
  • June 10, 5:17 p.m.; unbylined; “Dutch detect second grower with E. coli” — This report notes that the German farm is organic, but does not indicate whether the Dutch farms are. I would suggest that inquiring minds, and palates, would want to know.
  • June 12, 2:10 p.m.; Maria Cheng, AP Science Writer; “Scientists probe DNA of E. coli for outbreak clues” — In her third paragraph, Cheng writes that “German investigators have declared the outbreak was caused by contaminated sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany.” Good for Cheng; that’s about as definitive as it gets.

These AP stories DO NOT note that the farm to which E. coli was traced is organic:

  • June 10, 9:36 a.m.; Nataliya Vasilyeva; ”Russia promises to lift ban on EU vegetables” — Several hours after the tracing to the organic farm, Ms. Vasilyeva’s write-up would appear to have been an ideal time to point out its nature, especially since Russia was asking for “documented proof of … (imported vegetables’) safety.”
  • June 10, 7:12 p.m.; Mike Stobbe, AP Medical Writer; “5 in US now linked to German E. coli outbreak” — In the only reference to the farm, Stobbe writes that “European officials say sprouts from a farm in northern Germany caused the outbreak …” This is at least 12 hours after the farm’s organic nature was first noted; one would think that a conscientious medical writer would want to mention the bacteria’s origin.
  • June 11, 7:27 a.m.; Kristen Grieshaber and David Rising; “Hospitals reach limits in E.coli crisis.” In a roughly 30-paragraph report over 24 hours after the organic farm was tagged as the source, the AP writers only mentioned that sprouts coming from “a farm in Saxony” were the cause of the outbreak, and quoted a hospitalized patient who, despite a two-week stay, “did not see herself doing an about-face on her eating habits.” What kind of eating habits, guys?
  • June 12, 2:04 p.m.; unbylined; “Germany still seeking reason for E. coli outbreak”; in Lower Saxony, the German state where the farm is located, “the state’s agriculture ministry said it wasn’t clear whether workers brought in the bug, or whether the bacteria got onto the farm on seeds or by some other means.” Of all the times to note the organic farm’s nature, when getting into the details, one would think this particular report would be one of them. But it didn’t happen.

Looking at news coverage more broadly, a Google News search at 6 p.m. ET for June 10-12 on “E. coli farm” (not in quotes, sorted by date) returned 10,036 items. The same search, but this time also looking for stories that did not contain the word “organic,” returned 4,629 items, indicating that about 46% of stories mentioned the farm, but not that it was organic.

There has been almost no questioning of organic farming techniques and practices in establishment press coverage. A Google News search on ["organic farmin" dangerous] (input exactly as indicated between brackets, for June 5-12 because of suspicions already raised, sorted by date) only returned 10 items. Just one of them, a June 6 Reuters item (“E.coli outbreak poses questions for organic farming”), represents a mainstream press report which goes there.

I will suggest that if the outbreak’s source was a farm using modern techniques and/or owned by Big Ag, we would have seen much more pervasive skepticism by now from the mainstream media about the safety of food from such enterprises. But so far, organic farming seems almost untouchable.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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4 Comments

  1. Blogs become a useless forum (a global waste of time & words to begin with!)when biast persons (here, against “organic”)use them to malign anything out of context! An E-coli outbreak can occur at any farm, processor or distributor , organic or not. The use of fertilizers, chemicals and hormones doesn’t prevent E.coli, proper growing, handling, washing, testing & identification, at all locations do! Out of some 50+ “Top” Blogs listed here (6/12/11), only this one had any general use at all in a sea of petty gossip, trivia or scandal. How pathetic!!

    Comment by marguerit — June 12, 2011 @ 11:22 pm

  2. #1, not sure if you’re ripping (at the beginning) or complimenting (at the end).

    The fact that the farm is organic is relevant, if only b/c the outbreak is said to be the worst ever from any kind of farm. It’s up to others to sort out whether or not there’s something about organic farming that makes it more conducive than more modern farming, but the issue at least needs to be on the table, and as such needs to be consistently reported in the press

    Comment by TBlumer — June 13, 2011 @ 8:35 am

  3. [...] that the outrreak is, as noted yesterday, “the world’s deadliest known outbreak of E. coli,” the burden of proof would [...]

    Pingback by BizzyBlog — June 13, 2011 @ 9:17 am

  4. [...] (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), I noted a reluctance on the part of Associated Press reporters to describe the farm involved in [...]

    Pingback by BizzyBlog — June 13, 2011 @ 11:38 am

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