Making peanuts pay: Rochester reporter’s work shows how to go deep and go local with a national food safety scare

Published on
March 20, 2009

Justina Wang at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle tackled a topic that seems to scare most local publications: food safety.

With each food poisoning scare, local reporters cover what's happening at their corner stores. Few examine the root causes. With school board meetings, octuplet moms and a weekender due tomorrow, how could one possibly get to the bottom of our fractured food safety system?

Wang took the recent salmonella-tainted peanut butter outbreak and turned a critical eye toward nearly every link in the food chain: raw ingredients, manufacturing, wholesalers, local oversight, federal oversight. She found a local company and explored its response to the salmonella scare. And she showed how the old refrain of "lack of oversight" is not always about agencies not doing their jobs. In this case, the agencies do not have some basic public protection tools.

Still seems daunting? Forget "field to fork." Use any piece of Wang's story as a jumping off point for examining where the safety net needs work.

1. "The CDC reported in April that, despite progress before 2004, the number of cases of food poisoning has not declined over the last several years, straying significantly from goals set by the federal government."

Wang asked an important question. How does the CDC measure success? By the agency's yardstick, it fails when it comes to salmonella. This seems about a good a time as any for a CDC and FDA report card. Take those self-set goals and show people where they miss the mark and why. In each case, you could find a strong personal angle. Your future headline: "Food safety agencies flunk self-exam."

2. "While increased surveillance has improved the government's ability to track illnesses, the reported statistics - about 40,000 salmonella sicknesses nationwide each year - still reflect only a fraction of the actual cases. The CDC estimates that food-borne pathogens cause 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths nationwide each year."

When readers see a number like 15 per 100,000, they might think "What's the fuss?" We are only talking about the illnesses that have come to the attention of public health officials - a tiny slice. Did you call the county health department the last time you felt sick after taking a chance on a low rent sushi bar? What are the agencies doing to capture the scope of the problem? Take your county health agency, the chief repository for local food-borne illness statistics, and find out exactly how they track illnesses. My guess is that in more than few cases you will find they aren't doing much aside from taking calls from local hospitals. If you have a cooperative state agency, you might be able to get all the death certificate data showing primary and secondary causes of death. If you can crunch the numbers that show 45 food poisoning deaths in the county last year when only eight were reported to the county, you might have an interesting story. (If you can take the next step and trace those deaths to the bad sushi bar, even better.)

3. "Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the agency increased the surveillance of peanut butter producers following the 2007 salmonella outbreak in peanut butter manufactured by ConAgra Foods. But the Peanut Corporation of America was not part of the heightened oversight because the FDA had not known that the Georgia plant was producing peanut butter, Sundlof said. Federal inspectors did not visit the facility from 2001 until last year, when the FDA found metal shards in a shipment of peanuts from the plant."

How nice. Peanut butter that comes in creamy, chunky or metallic. Find a local company that makes something salmonella-friendly, then find out whether the FDA even knows they exist. Call the International Dairy Foods Association and ask for a list of local members. Call those companies and ask them what they make. Then ask the FDA for a list of local manufacturers by product type. Who's missing? Have they ever been inspected? Do they have any other issues? Lawsuits? High number of work comp claims? If someone had done this to the Peanut Corp. they would have found them conspicuously absent. Your future headline: "Major producers of disease-prone food slip past FDA undetected."

4. "The FDA then sent Georgia health officials to the facility, but inspectors didn't look for salmonella and didn't know the plant's internal tests had shown contamination." Another big question often missed. For what did the inspectors look? This is true for hospital inspections, work safety reviews, barbershop raids. How often have local inspectors even looked for traces of salmonella? Is it even part of the protocol? And are they just responding to the bad food du jour? Right now, inspectors all over the country are looking at anything that contains peanuts. A few years ago, ice cream was the big salmonella boogie man. Remember those 76 million people who go undetected. They key is for the inspectors to look first, not crack down after someone becomes sick. Your future headline: "Inspectors rarely check for salmonella."

5. "FDA officials have repeatedly asked for the power to require companies to recall potentially contaminated foods, and federal legislators have pushed for bills to issue such authority. Today, the agency has to negotiate the terms of any recall, even if it has determined that the product is unsafe. The FDA also can't impose fines to push for compliance." More national than local, but this could apply to state agencies with food oversight, too. Talk to the legislators who have attempted to strengthen the government's recall power and find out how they were thwarted. I encourage reporters to go beyond campaign contributions. Talk to committee staffers. Find the vote trades that were made. Who testified? What sort of industry shindigs were thrown around the time of the vote? Your future headline: "Peanut butter makerlinked to five salmonella deaths fought tougher rules."

There are at least a dozen other stories to be done based on Wang's great work. The Obama girls apparently love peanut butter. Just saying.