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Unfair CNN Report Showed One Clear Winner: Irradiation

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 22, 2007

Something called the CNN Special Investigations Unit presented Danger: Poisoned Food with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The subtitle: What you eat could make you sick.

No publicity of this sort is good for the industry but, as these things go, there was at least an attempt to present several sides to the story.

This included camera time with a grower named Rod Braga, who earlier was featured on CBS, and Joe Pezzini, representing the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.

The problem, of course, is that when one frame is showing pictures of a two-year-old child almost dying from kidney disease and noting, even in her recovery, that she will probably need a kidney transplant and be unable to have her own children — nothing that Rod or Joe can say in the next frame is likely to make any difference.

The industry also is not in a position to assure the public that the problem has been solved. That is all people care about. This is just spinach; most people don’t really want to know that much about it. They want Joe Pezzini to tell them we identified the problem, fixed it and now it can never happen again. Nothing more.

The public regulatory authorities certainly are still very guarded in their language. Joe Pezzini said, yes, the food is even safer than last year. Asked the same question and Bob Brackett, FDA Food Safety Chief, demurred. The furthest he would go was to say, “We’ve got a better indication of where the problems might be, so we’re watching for it.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.

The piece was certainly unfair. It placed great emphasis on the fact that the guidance is voluntary — but never claimed that the voluntary guidance was being violated.

The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was referred to only obliquely as another “voluntary” effort — with no mention of the complexities of it becoming mandatory once one signs it.

There was no sense of proportion or comparative risk. The injury of a child was used to emotionally manipulate the audience.

Bill Marler, the noted food safety attorney, was given soft ball questions. It is easy to say that industry is not doing the right thing; it is hard to know what the right thing is. Nobody forced him to declare what the correct buffer zone is between cattle and spinach.

None of this was surprising and Dr. Gupta was there eating raw spinach in the field, which is a big win for the industry. Rod Braga didn’t look the kind of guy who wanted to kill little girls, and that is a plus.

Yet this is an unwinnable PR war in this day and age. No matter how down to earth our farmers, no matter how media coached, nothing is going to matter if we have more little girls with kidney failure.

Which brings us to the one clear winner in the show: irradiation.

A segment of the piece had a CNN producer eat spinach irradiated at high enough doses to kill E. coli, and he could not identify a taste or appearance difference.

It really was persuasive and made you feel that we really should be pushing for FDA approval of the use of irradiation as a kill step on leafy greens. Then someone can start marketing a line and consumers would start getting used to seeing it.

Now that we have tied the whole industry together through the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, we better be planning for what to do if the CMA is discredited by an outbreak.

Another 15 feet of buffer isn’t going to cut it.

You can read a transcript of the story right here.

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