Mar 1 1998

Media Zapped

Journalists swallow food irradiation PR

When the federal Food and Drug Administration last month approved irradiation of red meat, government scientists cited the need to beef up efforts to combat a new, deadly strain of E. coli bacteria. No scientific explanation, however, has been forthcoming for the way the FDA’s decision seems to have zapped the critical faculties of the mainstream media.

Virtually without exception, reporters and editorial boards from Long Island Newsday to the San Francisco Chronicle lined up to swallow the irradiation industry’s hype, with headlines like “Say Yes to Irradiated Foods” (Chicago Tribune, 12/4/97). Even normally skeptical journalists have been loath to scrutinize statements by those with a financial interest in irradiation. Dennis Olson and Jim Dixon–director of irradiation research and food microbiologist, respectively, at Iowa State University–are frequently quoted, without any hint given that their employer is paid to operate the Department of Energy’s food irradiation demonstration project (Associated Press, 11/10/97; New York Times, 12/3/97).

In the Washington Post (11/12/97), Carole Sugarman quoted John Masefield, chief executive officer of Isomedix Inc., the Whippany, N.J., company that petitioned the FDA to approve meat irradiation: “After Three Mile Island, “complained the CEO, “irradiation became associated with the wrong image.”

The wrong image? Isomedix’s irradiation plant has been plagued by safety problems, starting with a 1974 accident in which a worker received a near-lethal dose of radiation. Later, Isomedix was caught flushing radioactive water down a public toilet (Food & Water Journal, Spring/97). Facts like these might have left readers feeling that Masefield’s “association” with Three Mile Island is uncomfortably apt–had Sugarman bothered to report them.

Fictitious facts

More commonly seen are fictitious “facts”: half-truths, myths and opinions that have been repeated so often they are no longer questioned. Still popping up is the baseless charge that irradiation opponents trick gullible consumers into believing the process makes meatballs glow in the dark (St. Petersburg Times, 12/2/97). In real life, critics of food irradiation readily acknowledge that the process does not make food radioactive.

Then there’s the more serious assertion that “dangerous pathogens are virtually destroyed” by irradiation (AP, 11/10/97). Hardly: irradiation is not effective against eminently dangerous microbes like clostridium, botulism, hepatitis and the agent that causes so-called “mad cow disease.” Between 1 percent and 10 percent of other microscopic nasties, including E. coli and salmonella, also survive, ready to multiply in the competition-free environment.

In addition, bacteria that signal spoilage through odor and color are destroyed, meaning consumers could unwittingly consume contaminated food. These fears were reiterated by FDA director of product information George Pauli less than a month before approval of meat irradiation. “The question is,” Pauli told the Associated Press (9/17/97), “are you setting up a situation where you could actually cause a problem?”

In fact, only the alternative press has reported one of the capitol’s best-kept secrets: The agency’s hand was forced by Congress, which in November passed an amendment requiring the FDA to rule on Isomedix’s irradiation petition within 60 days (Albany, N.Y. Metroland, 12/11/97). The same bill gutted labeling requirements for irradiated foods, and left intact complete exemptions for processed products and restaurant fare, even as the New York Times (12/3/97) reassured readers that the government “requires that labels specify when food has been irradiated,” period.

Representatives from the food and irradiation industries met last summer in Washington to craft a coordinated PR push, and their clout appears to be reflected in the media’s treatment of irradiation opponents. Activists have been subjected to the “divide and conquer” treatment; the Washington Post‘s Sugarman, for example, makes a point of the lack of strong resistance to irradiation by the “usually critical” Safe Food Coalition and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Despite her perch inside the Beltway, Sugarman apparently was not aware that both of these Washington groups have been accused of being “soft” on political hot buttons, like genetically engineered bovine growth hormone and mad cow disease. Carol Tucker Foreman, founder of the Safe Food Coalition–of which CSPI is a member–has represented mainstream industry clients like Beef Products International.

Sugarman went on to state that it was “hard to find an organization that opposes” irradiation, although two paragraphs later she interviews Michael Colby of Food & Water Inc., an irradiation critic who is a household name among safe-food activists and reporters.

Elusive dissenters

The New York Times has firmly established its preference on the irradiation issue–a bias that has recently extended onto the news pages. In the past, the paper has criticized the FDA (9/24/86) for initially agreeing to evaluate 67 studies, then narrowing its focus to just five that favored the technology–a situation which had not changed when the agency made its decision to approve meat irradiation. The authors of the other 62 research projects, many of which were critical, have been lost in the mists; Times reporter Gina Kolata apparently could not find a single skeptical scientist to quote in two back-to-back front-page stories (12/3/97, 12/4/97).

In fact, Kolata’s first story on meat irradiation did not reference a single dissenter–odd, since both Colby and irradiation critic Don Louria, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the New Jersey School of Medicine, said she called them while researching the articles. Kolata never did mention any medical experts who have problems with irradiation, including Louria. Yet Colby told FAIR’s CounterSpin radio program (12/12/97) that he gave the Times reporter a two-page list of scientists who have reservations about food irradiation. Kolata “was so antagonistic, I had to stop the interview several times,” claimed Colby.

“There’s always people who don’t get into stories,” responded Kolata. “I don’t go into a story saying I’m not going to listen to a certain point of view. I listen to all opinions.”

This is not the first time Kolata has been accused of pro-industry bias; the National Environmental Trust once took out an ad in the Times protesting her pollution coverage. And she has been charged with “setting up” lay activists like Colby, quoting them in opposition to industry scientists while neglecting anyone in the opposition with academic credentials. Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly (11/13/97) took the reporter to task for her review (New York Times, 10/1/97) of the breast cancer documentary Rachel’s Daughters; Kolata called the breast cancer patients in the film “far removed from the universe of scientists,” while ignoring the nine physicians who appeared on camera, including members of the National Cancer Institute and the National Academy of Sciences.

Irradiation “is one of the most underreported stories out there,” commented Karl Grossman, journalism professor at the State University of New York at Old Westbury who has written frequently for Extra! on nuclear coverage. His expose on the behind-the-scenes lobbying by the irradiation industry will appear in the spring issue of Covert Action Quarterly. “It’s just another scandal involving suppression of information by the nuclear industry”–with, of course, a little help from their media friends.

Amy Poe is the news editor for the Albany, N.Y. weekly Metroland.