The last few months of 2006 were productive ones for IFT’s media relations function, with respect to IFT’s Food Science Communicators (FSCs) and their interaction with news media around the nation.
Never before in a single calendar year has media relations recorded more than 100 million media impressions attributed to IFT and its FSCs. But halfway through 2006, predictions exceeding 120 million were realistic. With the dubious assistance of nationwide Escherichia coli outbreaks and IFT experts’ service to journalists spreading word of these foodborne illnesses, IFT media relations closed out 2006 with 200 million audience impressions overall.
As detailed in last month’s IFT Newsmakers column, the E. coli outbreak in fresh California spinach in September created more than 50 million media impressions by FSCs Dean Cliver, Mike Doyle, Don Schaffner, Christine Bruhn, Linda Harris, and Roger Clemens.
In October, residual effects of that outbreak kept Bruhn, Doyle, Cliver, and Harris busy on the media circuit, as each was quoted in outlets that include USA Today, Ft. Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, Forbes magazine, Los Angeles Times, KLTA-TV in Los Angeles, Reuters news wire, and others. Not including the coverage by Reuters, which has the potential of reaching hundreds of news outlets worldwide, the circulation and audience figures in these news outlets alone surpass 4.5 million.
In the October 23 issue of USA Today, readers learned that Doyle chooses to not eat packaged salads. The article attributes to Doyle that mixing leafy vegetables during the processing of these products is increasing the risk of contamination. Two days later, USA Today reporter Julie Schmit followed that article on packaged salad processing with a report on increasing sales of produce washes and the disagreement on their effectiveness. In that article, Bruhn noted that washing produce with water is as effective as any wash product readily available to consumers. She also pointed out that food-grade wax that remains on the produce after washing is harmless to the consumer.
On the same day, October 25, the Chicago Tribune’s Good Eating section featured five articles on vacuum-packed foods and household options to this preserving method. Among the articles was one detailing sound food safety advice, featuring Doyle and FSC Barry Swanson. Doyle stressed that vacuum sealing does not replace critically important food safety measures such as maintaining storage temperatures below 40°F. "We still have to use good food-handling practices," he said, "so hot foods should be hot and cold foods should be cold. Keep the food under 40 degrees, or heat it to more than 140 degrees."
Swanson urged never thawing foods at room temperature. "As long as you keep the temperature down, you’ll prevent the germination and growth of spores," he said. "You have to store in the freezer, and thaw in the refrigerator." The article concluded with Swanson recommending cutting open the vacuum-sealed bag when preparing it to thaw, since allowing air in prevents Clostridium botulinum, the cause of sickening botulism, from growing.
Weekday circulation of the Chicago Tribune is more than 500,000, making it one of the top-ten largest U.S. newspapers.
November greeted IFT with renewed interest in its 2005 Expert Report, Functional Foods: Opportunities and Challenges. As the Food and Drug Administration announced holding a public hearing on regulatory alternatives to existing functional food claims, the agency put forth IFT’s Expert Panel definition of functional foods as the starting point for discussion. Combined with media relations efforts over the prior 18 months to distribute its perspective on this subject, this new exposure brought news media to IFT.
FSC Fergus Clydesdale made the November 1 issue of the Chicago Tribune, saying that costs and regulatory restrictions motivate manufacturers to make less-qualified and potentially less-accurate claims. The Star-Ledger of New Jersey, which circulates 382,000 papers daily, republished the same article six days later.
Little more than a month later, December 3, the Sunday Star-Ledger ran a separate story two days before the FDA hearing. In the story, Roger Clemens delivered to readers a key message from the IFT Expert Report that was offered in IFT testimony during the hearing—that adjustments to the current regulatory climate could "provide the opportunity for the food industry to invest and do research to develop more healthful products." The Sunday Star-Ledger reaches 591,000 readers.
Where functional food coverage takes IFT, and vice versa, during 2007 may prove interesting. This column will keep readers up to date.
by James N. Klapthor,
Media Relations Manager