QUEBEC CITY — Reported cases of food-borne illness dropped 23 percent in the United States between 1991 and 2009. In that same period, media coverage of food borne illness and food recalls increased 250 percent.
Reasons for this apparent paradox and the differences between perception and reality were at the heart of Richard Raymond’s speech to International Bison Conference attendees July 27.
Raymond, former undersecretary for food safety with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pegged a marked increase in media coverage of recalls and food-related illnesses to an outbreak of illness traced to California spinach.
“2007, the spinach outbreak. That’s when the media said, ‘My God, it’s not just cows that cause E. coli 157 anymore. It’s an environmental issue.’ And they’ve been on it ever since,” said Raymond, who is now a food safety consultant.
“It was the first time we had seen fresh produce be linked to an illness of that size. Once the media found out that produce can kill you and make you sick, they have not let up since then. So we read about food borne illness all the time.”
He includes social media such as YouTube and Facebook in his criticism of sources the public increasingly uses for information, even though those sources are not necessarily credible.
After 1993, when E. coli in Jack-in-the-Box hamburgers sickened hundreds and killed many, companies improved their meat processing practices and testing became more common and more accurate, said Raymond.
The ability of Canada and the U.S. to identify food contamination through DNA and pinpoint its source makes food safer but also generates more media coverage.
As a result, many consumers think their food is not safe, that there is more food-borne illness today and that many more people are dying from tainted food.
“You read about the person that died. You don’t read about the kids that grew up to be healthy adults that never got sick once,” he said.
As for food recalls, Raymond said testing and tracing allows government food safety agencies to identify the source and implement a recall, giving media a face for the “bad guy.”
“When you identify the company … now you’ve got a news story. Now it’s a company in your backyard or in your state.
“The reality, however, is that we’re just simply getting much better at linking what used to be unrelated illnesses together.”
From 1999-2009, Raymond said lab-proven cases of illness from E. coli in beef were down 41 percent. Cases of illness from campylobacter in poultry were down 30 percent and illness from listeria in ready-to-eat products was down 26 percent.
To put E. coli illness into context, Raymond said there were 50 to 70 deaths in the U.S. last year from food contamination. In contrast, about 2,000 people died from choking, 10,000 from reaction to medications and 36,000 from influenza.
“The reality is that technology can help safely feed the world with product that is affordable and those are technologies that we need to talk more about.”
In an interview, Raymond acknowledged he is critical of media coverage on food issues because of bias.
“I’m critical of the media that has a hidden agenda and they don’t disclose it. If they are anti-meat and anti-animal products, they should say, right up front.”