A scary story here. Very scary story here!

Published on: 12:27PM May 12, 2009

By Steve Cornett

The New York Times yesterday had a pretty darn balanced and well-contexted look at the state of food safety in the U.S.

You can see it at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/11/health/11food.html?ref=health.

Surprisingly for the Times, the story is not all about how bad food and agriculture is. In fact, it concedes—and I use the verb only because it’s the New York Times so I suppose they have to “concede” it—most public health experts “believe the nation’s food supply is markedly safer now than it was 100 years ago, and probably safer than a decade ago.”

I can’t imagine which “expert” worth the “pert” part wouldn’t believe the food supply was safer than it was 100 years ago. But I’m glad to see the Times admitting the experts think it’s safer than 10 years ago. Geez. The system is doing something right?

And then later, get this: 

“Since the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) began its improved tracking in 1996, cases tied to some major germs have decreased significantly. Authorities cite better oversight of the meat and poultry industry. (Emphasis added).

“Ailments caused by the toxic strain of Escherichia coli have dropped 25%. Campylobacter cases are down 32% and listeria cases, down 36%. A few relatively rare diseases have increased, and rates of salmonella, a common food-borne illness, are largely unchanged. (Most salmonella cases are mild.)” 

Now, to be frank, I might have chosen different words. I think HACCP, the industry’s overtime efforts and technological improvement have had more impact than government oversight. But let’s not quibble.

The authors of this article even managed to find somebody who got sick drinking raw milk despite the fact that it was organic raw milk produced, I presume, by a “family dairy farmer.” That’s just so un-PC to blame some family farmer for a problem, even though there’s not enough cash in most family farms to attract the attention of the trial lawyers and their publicity machines.

The writers go so far in this piece as to suggest that all the headlines about food safety might be the result not of less safe food but of better reporting.

Anytime I get into this subject of food safety, my brain caveats the whole thing by wondering if we are really making ourselves safer by protecting ourselves from every possible germ, knowing that we are fostering sissy-sissy-kissy-missy immune systems.

At any rate, in defense of the NYT, whose reporting I admire greatly and trust greatly on issues I don’t know anything about, I will note that this nuanced article is not on the Web site's list of most popular stories. It isn’t scary enough for folks to email around to each other, proving how interested they are.

On the other hand, Jane Brody’s very scary story on the "very not-scary-to-me-anyhow" National Cancer Institute report on red meat’s relationship to longevity among AARP oldsters was on the “most popular” list from April 27 until this morning.

Now, if you were a reporter whose job was to generate readership, would you rather write something scary that people email around or something more nuanced that people ignore?

Yes. Well, me too. But I didn’t have one this morning, so I just wrote a scary headline.