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
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