Q&A with Justina Wang: Checking the food safety net for rips

Published on
March 25, 2009

When the Peanut Corporation of America recalled thousands of peanut butter products in January for fear they were tainted with salmonella, news organizations all over the country rushed to local stores to find out what where PCA products were being sold. Justina Wang, 25, a recent Northwestern University grad who works at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, went a step further. She looked at how the company, and the country, got to this point, detailing all sorts of regulatory and manufacturing failures in a straightforward, fact-packed story. She did this within a month of the recall announcement despite being one of just 36 reporters in the newsroom and juggling a busy schedule of dailies and features.

Here's a recap of our discussion:

Q: When was the last time you ate anything with peanut butter?

A: I have loved peanut butter for a long time. And the whole time I reported that story I didn't touch peanut butter at all. In the last few weeks, I actually have started eating the kind from a jar, the kind they say has been safe.

Q: You are a health beat reporter, right? By my count, you have written more than 30 stories this year. How did you carve out time for this larger piece on food safety?

A: It's the hardest thing that we do at a paper of our size. I would do my daily stories and make a little time every day, even it was just 10 minutes to focus on the peanut butter stuff. I would schedule my interviews ahead of time so I couldn't put them off, even if I had a daily. It ended up taking me about a month, and in the last week I got a little more time to focus on that story exclusively.

Q: Going into it, what did you think were the main problems that led to the salmonella poisonings?

A: I was just thinking there was some problem at the production level, that companies weren't paying attention to their filtration systems or other ways to kill the salmonella or the E. coli or whatever. But then I realized that it was so many layers deep and the problems were at every layer of food production and every layer of regulation.

Q: What were you surprised to learn?

A: How long the process actually takes from the time of an outbreak to the time that we at the consumer level actually hear about it. They say at every level as soon as they hear about it they are taking action but there is such a long lapse in time that from the time of the outbreak to the time that consumers are hearing about it hundreds of people are getting sick and are being put in grave danger. People hear about stuff like that and think "I need to throw out my peanut butter," but the fact is it was the peanut butter that they have eaten already over the last few months that they needed to worry about. The stuff they just bought is probably safe.

Q: Did you find any resources that you hadn't used before?

A: I went through a lot of CDC reports for all the recent food illnesses and read through the scientific process of how they traced the outbreak. Those reports contained a lot of information about how the process worked. We went through all the FDA recall letters one by one. There were dozens of them on the site. That's how we found Perry's Ice Cream, which we talked about in the story.

Q: Were they more or less forthcoming than you had anticipated?

A: They were pretty forthcoming. They explained their process and told me that they had gone to the PCA [Peanut Corporation of America] factory and taken a look and found no problems. And they told me that they had clean reports from them. But I feel like as with any company that is dealing with something that could be bad PR they are a little reluctant to talk about the details of the problem. They didn't want to show me any of their inspection reports or other files related to PCA. They said it was their private company files.

Q: Now, most people would assume that the FDA has a lot of power to deal with tainted food. When did you decide that a big part of the story was going to be the lack of authority that the FDA has?

A: I was talking to food safety advocates at all levels and that was a theme that kept recurring in my conversations. The FDA has very little authority over the recall process. I had taken a look at food safety with the melamine situation because we had some cookies on the shelves of a local grocer. When I asked the FDA about it they said the companies initiate their own recall. I had it in the back of my head from that point that I wanted to do that story.

Q: Which agencies were good to work with on this story? And which put up roadblocks?

A: At a local level, our Monroe County health department was pretty open and asked a lot of questions and walked us through the system. At the federal level, it's always a lot trickier in terms of getting anyone to call you back and answer your questions. Both the FDA and CDC were hard to get to answer questions. They e-mailed me some documents about the peanut butter recall process, and I don't think anything I specifically asked for was denied.

Q: How did the paper's editors vision for this story differ from yours and how did you resolve those differences?

A: They wanted a story about the peanut butter outbreak at a local level that could answer the questions from people calling us asking if they could eat the peanut butter cookies in their pantry, but as I got into the story it seemed it was more about the lapses that allowed these things to happen over and over. When I turned in the story, it was very different from that, but they gave me most of the space that I needed.

Q: Were you surprised by some of the comments that were posted on your site? There was a definite libertarian if not anarchist bent in some of those messages. And then there was this diatribe about Hurricane Katrina. What do you make of all that?

A: There's a lot of anger there about the system and about the government in general. Aside from that, I received a lot of calls and letters. We had a local lawyer who had represented a lot of local food poisoning cases and he believed that pizza and vodka were the only safe things to eat. A graduate student from one of our universities was advocating growing your own food. A lot of parents had a lot of questions about what their kids were eating. What we basically heard was that people didn't realize how it all worked behind the scenes. At the same time, that level of fear was evident.

Q: Even as you were writing this story, it looks like you were assigned to write about a mini golf charity benefit that ran the same day.

A: I do what I'm told. The daily stories, especially those little feature ones, have to be done, too. I just try to do the small stories as quickly as I can so I can get back to working on the larger stories.

Q: What else are you planning in terms of food safety?

A: I would like to do more when I get the time. Especially at the recall level, there's a lot of money involved in pulling products off the shelves. I would like to take a closer look at what happens and how costly it is for the companies who are involved in these recalls.