James N. Klapthor

There were tremendous positives for IFT to hail in the coverage of topical food issues in 2002, and among them was word that irradiated ground beef was earning a significant place in the refrigerated section of grocery stores nationwide. The Washington Post not only gave ink to the decades-old processing technique in its November 2 issue, but also provided an IFT-member’s perspective of the anticipated consumer reaction to the availability of the irradiated product.

Christine Bruhn, University of California at Davis, referenced surveys which claim that 80% of consumers are eager to buy irradiated ground beef. And she closed the article, which was generally positive toward irradiated beef, with an unforgettable quote. “It’s a no-brainer for the supermarkets,” she said.

The Washington Post is the capital city’s largest daily newspaper, distributing more than 750,000 issues locally and nationally. Its Web site, where the article was also published, averages 17 million visitors per month.

Bruhn was quoted more extensively eight days later in a November 10 article in The San Francisco Chronicle. Called “one of the nation’s most ardent supporters of irradiation” by the article’s author, Bruhn was described as absolutely convinced that irradiation is safe. “I think it’s a basic right of the public to choose safety-enhanced food,” she said. “Just as we can buy pasteurized milk and juice, we should be able to buy pasteurized beef.” The Chronicle’s daily circulation is nearly 500,000.

The results of Bruhn’s efforts to provide The Post and The Chronicle with relevant information were good. The opposite was true for Carl Winter, also of the University of California at Davis, and like Bruhn, an IFT food science communicator. On the advice of IFT World Headquarters, The Chicago Tribune contacted Winter for perspective on the topic of labeling genetically modified foods. The resulting article published on November 10 was hot on the heels of the defeat of an Oregon measure to label all GMOs sold or produced within the state. Winter provided the reporter with much background information, including the polarized arguments in Oregon for and against GMOs. But in one glaring instance, the information was relayed to the reader as Winter’s scientific opinion. Thus, when he explained that there is a concern in the anti-GMO camp that a large percentage of our food supply could be controlled by a small number of multinational corporations, the information was irresponsibly and incorrectly attributed to Winter. The reporter failed to note that this perspective was the bastion of the measure’s advocates, not Winter’s scientific opinion. Results of interaction with a reporter from major news outlets don’t get much worse.

Luckily for Winter, he was provided the article’s final statement. “Research shows a diet high in [fruits, vegetables, and grains] protects against heart disease and many cancers,” he said. “That message gets lost too often in the argument about organic foods and GMOs.” The Chicago Tribune circulates nearly 600,000 copies a day.

Somewhere between the results experienced by Bruhn and Winter lies the outcome of efforts by Charles Santerre, Purdue University, as published within the nation’s most widely circulated daily newspaper, USA Today. Taking the initiative to provide its reporter with comprehensive information on a food topic that crosses international boundaries, Santerre described in powerful detail to USA Today volatile accusations by Canadian conservation groups against farm-raised salmon. Santerre initiated contact with the reporter, providing information on food toxicology studies, insight on responsible reporting of toxicology levels, and scientifically sound opinion on the nutritional benefits of salmon, both farm-raised and wild. It had the makings of a high-profile news feature, but resulted in a limited article buried on page seven of the paper’s Life section.

Santerre can take solace, however. The north-of-the-border controversy was introduced to U.S. readers, and his perspective was included. The study in question involved only four farmed fish, not enough to be statistically meaningful, he noted. The reporter also added that Santerre perceives the study’s authors as irresponsible for reporting negligible toxicity levels as significant.

When dealing with a shrinking news hole created by many factors affecting news media today, Santerre’s comments could have been edited out of the article, or his efforts to bring the topic to print ignored completely. Suffice to say, those outcomes are less desirable than the resulting article published on November 4. USA Today has a circulation of more than 1.6 million.

Media Relations Manager