Share This Page

Food safety & media fiction

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

With America's “fiscal cliff” approaching, pundits wring their hands over the supposed catastrophe that government spending cuts will bring. A scare newsletter called “Food Poisoning Bulletin” warns that if government reduces food inspections, “food will be less safe ... (because) marginal companies ... (will) cut corners.”

Most people believe that without government meat inspection, food would be filthy. But that's bunk.

It's not government that keeps E. coli to a minimum. It's competition. Tyson Foods, Perdue and McDonald's have brands to maintain — and customers to lose. Ask Jack in the Box. It lost millions after a food-poisoning scandal.

Fear of getting a bad reputation makes food producers even more careful than government requires.

Since the Eisenhower administration, our stodgy government has paid an army of union inspectors to eyeball chickens in every single processing plant. But bacteria are invisible!

Fortunately, food producers run much more sophisticated tests on their own. One employs 2,000 more safety inspectors than government requires: “To kill pathogens, beef carcasses are treated with rinses and a 185-degree steam vacuum,” an executive told me. “Production facilities are checked for sanitation with microbiological testing. If anything is detected ... we re-clean the equipment. ... Equipment is routinely taken completely apart to be swab-tested.”

None of that is required by government. Government regulation may help a little, but we are safe mostly because of competitive markets.

But people don't trust companies. So it is easy to scare people about food. And the news media know that finding “problems” makes reporters look like crusading journalists.

Earlier this year, my old employer, ABC News, “alerted” the public to a new threat, ground beef made with “pink slime.” ABC's reporting frightened most school systems so much that they stopped using that form of meat. The food company lost 80 percent of its business.

But the scare was bunk.

“Bunk is the polite word,” Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center says. “ABC went on a crusade. Three nights in a row back in March, they pounded on this.”

Well, why shouldn't they, if there's something called “pink slime” in beef?

“Because it's not ‘pink slime.' It's ground beef.”

Then how did this all get started?

“A couple activists who used to work for the FDA didn't like this really cool scientific process that separates the beef trimming so you get the remaining ground beef. So they coined this term deliberately to try to hurt this company.”

The company, Beef Products Inc., does something unique. It takes the last bit of trim meat off the bone by heating it slightly. That saves money and arguably helps the environment — not using that meat would waste 5,000 cows a day.

In 20 years, there is no record of anybody being hurt by what ABC and its activists call “pink slime” — what the industry just calls “lean beef trimmings” or “finely textured beef.”

After ABC's reports, Beef Products Inc. closed three out of its four plants. Seven hundred workers lost jobs.

Scientifically illiterate, business-hating media will always do scare stories. Don't believe them.

John Stossel is host of “Stossel” on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of “No They Can't: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.