James N . Klapthor

It began innocuously. A brief e-mail from IFT Food Science Communicator Roger Clemens alerted IFT Media Relations at the end of the business day, September 14, 2006, that he was scheduled for an interview with ABC on the topic of spinach. Considering it an update from Clemens about his regular interviews with the local ABC-affiliate in Los Angeles, we filed the notice.

That night, preceding the lead story on ABC News’ Nightline program, host Martin Brashir alerted viewers nationwide that the Food and Drug Administration was warning consumers against eating fresh bagged spinach, that pathogens carried on the vegetable were believed to have caused at least one death and 100 cases of foodborne illness in more than 20 states.

The next day dawned with Clemens’ interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, reaching nearly 5 million viewers nationwide. It was only the beginning.

As Good Morning America and other news outlets were spreading the word to consumers sitting down to their morning breakfast, IFT released to news media coast-to-coast a roster of IFT food safety experts—microbiologists who are up to date on the procedures utilized in processing fresh produce and the vulnerability of pathogens to survive on leafy greens like spinach all the way to consumers’ homes. It can be expected that organizations with similar communication methods and expert analysts did the same.

Within only a few days, IFT food safety experts Mike Doyle, Dean Cliver, Don Schaffner, and others were appearing in major news outlets throughout the country.

Clemens’ message to the GMA audience was that the strain of Escherichia coli suspected in this outbreak was highly virulent, that even the smallest amount of these organisms could bring serious health consequences to people susceptible to foodborne illness. Doyle told Time magazine that ready-to-eat bagged spinach was only part of a larger microbial concern with fresh-produce processing. Schaffner relayed to readers of the Philadelphia Inquirer the investigative process that was underway. And Cliver described to the New York Times the many ways in which E. coli H7:O157 can infect produce and the difficulties FDA faces in eliminating the problem.

"If they had an answer, it wouldn’t still be happening," Cliver said.

"Two to three years ago," Doyle was quoted by Time as saying, "I was asked to go out and view what was going on in the fields when there was an outbreak associated with a fast food restaurant chain from their cut-up lettuce. Every company at the time was using the same concept to process head lettuce—they would core the lettuce in the field, remove the outside leaves, and put it in chlorinated water. The goal is to reduce costs, because you don’t have to take the waste from the factory and bring it back to the field. The problem is, they are working out in the dirt. There are so many different ways that E. coli can get into the food this way."

Schaffner said it was hard to say whether E. coli outbreaks were occurring more often or whether increased scrutiny was increasing their discovery. He did applaud the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for linking cases of food poisoning in different states. "They are able to pick up on the fact that the bacteria [in this spinach outbreak] all have the same genetic fingerprint," he said.

Time reaches 4 million readers weekly. The New York Times is the nation’s third-largest daily newspaper, reaching more than 1 million readers. The Inquirer is the No. 1 paper in Philadelphia, the nation’s fourth-largest metropolitan area, circulating nearly 400,000 papers daily.

Certainly, Clemens, Cliver, Doyle, and Schaffner were not the only IFT Food Science Communicators working diligently to spread a scientific message during the spinach outbreak. Insight provided by Linda Harris and Christine Bruhn in California reached the audiences of the Los Angeles Times (circulation 907,000), San Jose Mercury News (276,000), the NBC Nightly News and others. Harris’ comments, as aired on NBC, reached more than 9 million viewers on September 29. The following morning, they were rebroadcast on NBC’s Saturday Today show to another 4 million viewers.

One day after Clemens appeared on Good Morning America, Doyle was featured by the same outlet, reaching more than 2 million viewers.

During September alone, at least seven Food Science Communicators spoke on the topic of this spinach outbreak, reaching audiences of at least 58 million. Considering that IFT reached a total audience of 100 million during the whole of 2005, this one-month result is remarkable.

by James N. Klapthor,
Media Relations Manager
[email protected]