Food safety, information safety

Yesterday my family and I read this article on food safety which was syndicated to our local paper from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It begins provocatively:

One-third of a second.

That’s how long a federal inspector will have to examine slaughtered chickens for contaminants and disease under new rules proposed by the federal government.

In the ensuing 1300 words of the main story that was syndicated to our paper, plus 1100 words of sidebars not included, the reporter — Tim Eberly — explores how the proposal will shift responsibility for hands-on inspection from federal inspectors to poultry plant workers. It’s a portrait of yet another disturbing lapse of oversight in our national food safety system. That much was clear to us when we finished the article. But we were left wondering: why would the USDA so flagrantly subvert its mission?

From the article:

The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees poultry plants, believes the changes would “ensure and even enhance the safety of the poultry supply by focusing our inspectors’ efforts on activities more directly tied to improving food safety,” FSIS [the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service] spokesman Dirk Fillpot said in a statement.

The agency says it wants inspectors to focus on issues that pose the greatest health risks to the public.

That still doesn’t really explain the USDA’s rationale, though. So I spent five minutes searching online and discovered the following facts:

  • The USDA has a blog.

  • To which USDA officials frequently contribute.

  • Including Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, who is not just an FSIS spokesperson but in fact the offical who oversees the agency’s policies and programs.

On April 19, 2012, Dr. Hagen cited the rationale that was missing from Tim Eberly’s story (bold emphasis mine):

Today, USDA announced an extension to the public comment period for a proposed rule that would modernize the poultry slaughter inspection system.  This new plan would provide us with the opportunity to protect consumers from unsafe food more effectively.  We recognize that this proposal would represent a significant change from the current system and has sparked a debate on how poultry is inspected.  We also value the different opinions being expressed about the proposal and have extended the public comment period to ensure all sides are presented in this debate.

It may surprise you to learn that the USDA has been inspecting poultry in largely the same way since the 1950′s. So, while our scientific knowledge of what causes foodborne illness has evolved, our inspection process has not been updated to reflect this new information. Under this modernization proposal, significant public health benefits will be achieved and foodborne illness will be prevented by focusing our inspectors attention on activities that will better ensure the safety of the poultry you and your family enjoy.

One thing we have learned from the last few decades of advances in food safety technology is that the biggest causes of foodborne illness are the things you don’t see like the harmful pathogens Salmonella and Campylobacter. As part of a continual effort to improve our inspection system, FSIS is proposing to move some inspectors away from quality assurance tasks—namely checking carcasses for bruises and feathers—to focus on food safety tasks, such as ensuring sanitation standards are being met and verifying testing and antimicrobial process controls. This science based approach means our highly-trained inspectors would spend less time looking for obvious physical defects and more time making sure steps poultry processing facilities take to control food safety hazards are working effectively.

The increased emphasis on food safety tasks proposed under the rule is consistent with the agency’s focus on foodborne illness prevention.  Instead of focusing on quality assurance, inspectors will now be able to ensure plants are maintaining sanitary conditions and that food safety hazards are being reduced throughout the entire production process.

Under a pilot program started in 1999, known as the HACCP Inspection Models Program, 20 broiler plants have served as “trial plants” for this new proposal. Test results from the poultry produced in those plants shows lower rates of Salmonella before it goes to the grocery store. The data and test results from this pilot program demonstrate that quality assurance tasks, such as checking for bruises and blemishes, do not provide adequate food safety protections as once was thought over 60 years ago.

Over the years we have seen — again and again — the need to modernize to keep pace with the latest science and threats. This poultry slaughter modernization proposal is about protecting public health, plain and simple, and I encourage stakeholders and the public to read the proposal and then let us know what you think.

Why couldn’t Tim Eberly have found, quoted from, and cited the USDA’s authoritative statement? Why couldn’t the editor who syndicated it into my local paper have added value by doing so?

There’s an analog to food safety: information safety. Reporters (food producers) and editors (inspectors) are chained to a fast-moving production line. But science-based methods can help keep us safe. Use the precious few seconds available to find, and report, authoritative sources.

19 thoughts on “Food safety, information safety

  1. Edward Vielmetti (@vielmetti)

    Jon -

    The editor for the wire service typically doesn’t “add value”, unless the story is local to the news area being covered, in which case they’ll try to get one more local quote for the story. It’s generally even worse when editors aggregate news – in that case they tend to run something shorter than the original, not longer.

    Reporters, even the best of them, are challenged for time when they write stories. There’s often an obvious narrative to the story, and once it’s complete they file the story and move on.

    Bloggers don’t face any of these constraints so they’re free to add, research, embellish, dig deeper, and look for things online (like you just did). That’s a whole set of strengths that don’t typically fit in the news room.

    Reply
  2. Jon Udell Post author

    The editor for the wire service typically doesn’t “add value”, unless the story is local to the news area being covered, in which case they’ll try to get one more local quote for the story.

    I realize that. Part of what I’m suggesting, though, is that since I am paying my local paper for the service of relaying syndicated stories, if they do take time to add value, I would rather pay them to improve things fundamentally, if they can, rather than superficially.


    Reporters, even the best of them, are challenged for time when they write stories.

    Of course. But Tim Eberly spent much more than 5 minutes tracking down Dirk Fillpot for the USDA response included in the story. It only took me 5 minutes to find Elisabeth Hagen’s authoritative statement.

    Reply
  3. ajmorikaway Morikawa

    Perhaps a lesson here about the impact of pre-disposition, of thinking less of government agencies like the USDA, of assuming their shortcomings, of seeing what in this case is really not there after all. Thanks, Jon, for untangling this one. The wire service editor needs a new prescription for his glasses.

    Reply
  4. Jon Udell Post author

    of seeing what in this case is really not there after all

    Of course we don’t know that there isn’t a there there. I’m no fan of our food system, and I’m not naive about how corporations can influence government.

    To its very great credit, though, the USDA not only made its case on its blog, but has accepted and retained a bunch of harshly critical comments.

    This is one of the ways in which blogging ought to enhance journalism. Dr. Hagen made her case in April. That’s her job, and it’s part of the story, or should have been. Tim Eberly’s job is to advance the story. Here that ought to have meant acknowledging, and then exploring, her rationale.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Food safety, information safety « Jon Udell | The Safetys Online Site

  6. Speed

    Does this make you wonder about the quality of all the other stories in your paper? Remember, their job is to deliver eyeballs to advertisers and nicely detailed stories about the differences between inspection and process verification don’t grab and deliver eyeballs. More valuable would be a story about what grows in the sponge that many people have sitting on their kitchen sink — and it could be made pretty scary.

    Up next … “NTSB reveals pilots fly unwatched for hours on end.”

    Reply
    1. Jon Udell Post author

      their job is to deliver eyeballs to advertisers Or anyway was. Not working out so well any more. Maybe it’s time to consider a product that subscribers will want to support directly.

      Reply
  7. Pingback: Food safety, information safety « Jon Udell | Food News Gator

  8. Pingback: » Information safety. Gordon's shares

  9. Bill Sullivan

    “There’s an analog to food safety: information safety. Reporters (food producers) and editors (inspectors) are chained to a fast-moving production line. But science-based methods can help keep us safe. Use the precious few seconds available to find, and report, authoritative sources.”

    Even while local papers aren’t using science-based methods, I’m glad that we have blogs to both get out the USDA blog and your to get accurate information out to people like myself. Not so long ago, we were all pretty much stuck with what the local paper reported. I hope the papers embrace the new media system, but in the meantime I’ll be happy to go directly to the blogs.

    Reply
  10. Victor Barger

    Your post reminded me of a book I read recently: “Trust Me, I’m Lying” by Ryan Holiday (http://isbnlink.com/159184553X). He looks at the state of the media, both online and offline, and describes how the current incentive structure discourages reporters from performing “value added” activities such as the ones you suggest. If you get a chance to read it, it’d be interesting to hear your perspective!

    (Incidentally, I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughtful articles and posts over the years. Thanks for keeping at it!)

    Reply
  11. mike c.

    Great post. Through my own statistical lit blinders, I have to say the minute I read “One third of a second.” I was rolling my eyes. Taking a process like inspection or quality assurance and dividing the time by total number of chickens is not really hard to spot as statistical malpractice “One third of a second. That’s how much time the waste water treatment plant has to examine every hundred gallons of water that leave the plant…” I’m wondering if part of the reason that you dug deeper was triggered by that formulation?

    (I’m trying, in part, to see what sets off the alarm bells in competent readers).

    Reply
  12. Pingback: Food safety and information safety revisited « Jon Udell

  13. Trent

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment
    didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing
    all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say superb blog!

    Reply

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