June 13, 2011

Update: In Two Monday E. Coli Reports, AP Avoids Describing Involved Farm as ‘Organic’

Yesterday (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), I noted a reluctance on the part of Associated Press reporters to describe the farm involved in “the world’s deadliest known outbreak of E. coli” as “organic.”

The wire service issued two additional reports this morning, both of which failed to use the “O-word.” The case for the use of the word in these reports is as strong, if not stronger, than it was in the seven items discussed yesterday. Beyond that, AP, along with the rest of the press, has failed to explore the possibility that Germany’s 1950s-era outlook towards farming practices may have helped to create the conditions allowing such an outbreak to occur.

In a short, unbylined report time-stamped at 9:31 a.m. (“Germany advises against homegrown sprouts”), the wire service mentions the farm once (“Officials on Friday traced the outbreak to sprouts from a farm in northern Germany but are still puzzling over how the bacteria got there”), but did not mention its organic approach. Additionally, AP watered down the outbreak’s historic nature, downgrading it to “the country’s deadly E. coli outbreak.”

In a 9:07 a.m. time-stamped report by writers Geir Moulson and Maria Cheng (“German shortcomings in focus as outbreak wanes”), there was only one reference to the farm involved — “… officials on Friday finally declared sprouts from a farm in northern Germany to be the culprit.” In a 900-word report, the AP pair could surely have squeezed in “organic.” Moulson and Cheng also did the downgrade routine, calling it “Europe’s deadly E. coli outbreak.”

Maria Cheng’s involvement in this particular omission is especially disappointing, as she was the AP writer who yesterday wrote the strongest declarative sentence tagging the farm: “German investigators have declared the outbreak was caused by contaminated sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany.” I can’t come up with a good reason why Cheng would have backed away today. Surely a good journalist knows that because you mentioned something important in a different report yesterday, that doesn’t relieve you of the obligation to repeat it in subsequent reports.

In an editorial today, the Wall Street Journal opined that the type of farm involved and the country’s resistance to applying modern science to farming should be relevant considerations (italics are in original; bolds are mine):

German Greens and their European Union acolytes have long fought scientific advances in food production and protection. After a spice manufacturer in Stuttgart employed the world’s first commercial food irradiation in 1957, West Germany banned the practice in 1959 and has since allowed few exceptions. So it’s no small scandal that the latest fatal E. coli outbreak has been linked to an organic German farm that shuns modern farming techniques.

… both harmful and harmless E. coli strains are present in the intestines of most animals, as well as human beings. No amount of standardizations or certifications will guarantee E. coli’s eradication from food.

The best practice for doing so would be, well, irradiation, which involves sending gamma rays or electron beams into meat, poultry and produce. The process can deactivate up to 99.999% of E. coli, and was declared safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration almost 50 years ago. Even so, less than 10% of the global food supply is irradiated.

… study after study has turned up no evidence that zapping food with low doses of radiation damages human health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization and World Health Organization have all endorsed the process as safe and highly effective.

These facts haven’t discouraged the even more effective media campaigns of a few pressure groups that never met a food technology they didn’t fear.

… The U.S. allows irradiation of meat, eggs, poultry and some fruits and vegetables, but its labeling requirements effectively discourage widespread use of the technology. In Europe, regulations are even tighter, as they are against synthetic pesticides and genetically modified foods. Only irradiated herbs and seasonings may be traded throughout the EU market, and as in the U.S. no irradiated foods may be sold as “organic.”

… This latest E. coli outbreak is painful real-life evidence that natural foods are not always better, nor safe for consumption.

The failures to inform cited here betray an even stronger pattern of journalistic irresponsibility than shown yesterday. The AP and most of the rest of the establishment press is failing to communicate the fundamental lesson expressed in the Journal editorial’s final sentence. This would appear to serve no one except the defenders of the organic farming status quo at the expense of public health.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.


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