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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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September 1997


Late to Report on Irradiation
Networks Wait Almost Two Weeks to Present Solution to Unsafe Meat

One would think that when a public health threat hits the news, the solution endorsed by the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization would get immediate attention.

One would be wrong. When e. coli bacteria was found in meat from the Hudson Foods company last month, the network evening news shows reported on the story for almost two weeks before mentioning irradiation, a method of decontaminating food which most health experts endorse, but which the Food and Drug Administration wonít allow for meat. In the meantime, calls for increasing government regulation of food were reported on sympathetically.

Soon after the story broke on August 12, reporters began questioning the safety of the food supply without mentioning the irradiation solution.

NBCís Robert Hager, on the August 18 Nightly News, reported that "the unnerving truth is that in this case, a lot of elaborate precautions seem to have already been in place, and still the contamination took place." Hager didnít bring up irradiation. A week later, on the August 25 Nightly News, Jim Avila filed a harrowing story about how cattle are fed chicken litter, which he claimed could be the root cause of seven million cases of food poisoning a year. But still no mention of irradiation.

Meanwhile, ABCís Bob Jamieson, on the August 21 World News Tonight, told viewers that the U.S. Department of Agriculture needed more power. "Agriculture officials often rely on assurances from processing companies themselves that tainted meat will not meet consumers," Jamieson said. He reported that "the USDA relies on the company to conduct a recall" and that "in two recent sessions of Congress, efforts to fix what consumer advocates call a fundamental flaw in the system failed." Jamieson also ignored irradiation.

In case viewers didnít get the picture, Peter Jennings followed Jamiesonís report with a fawning interview of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. "In other words," Jennings said, "Congress will not give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to recall food on its own...Why wonít they give it to you?" Other questions to Glickman: "Is the Congress putting Americans at risk?" and "You probably know better than all of us that Americans expect that food in the United States should be completely safe. Is it a reasonable expectation?" Jennings didnít mention irradiation, either.

Finally, after nearly two weeks, an evening news show reported on irradiation. John Roberts, on the August 25 CBS Evening News, said: "Studies have shown that irradiation does deplete vitamins, but no more than cooking the food. And while it can create cancer-causing chemicals like benzine, the evidence suggests they are in such small amounts as to not be harmful." Still, he said Americans "may be left with a Hobsonís choice: eat irradiated food or food that is possibly tainted."

By August 29, NBC Nightly News and ABCís World News Tonight woke up to irradiation and aired informative stories on the subject. NBCís Lisa Myers reported that "some experts say the ultimate answer to safer food is not regulation, but already available technology, specifically irradiating food by bombing it with gamma rays."

Myers pointed out that irradiation is already being used safely in some circumstances, but fear of radiation keeps it from being widely used on food. She then ran a soundbite from author Richard Rhodes, who said this fear is "tragic" because thousands die every year from food poisoning.

ABCís Mike von Fremd pointed out that "irradiating food does not make it radioactive or change its taste" and ran a soundbite from Fran Smith of Consumer Alert, who said, "Irradiation is to food safety what pasteurization was to milk safety." He concluded: "It is fear, some say irrational, that keeps irradiation" from being widely used.

The reports by Myers and von Fremd were first-rate, but why did it take two weeks for them to appear?


ó Rich Noyes


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