News that a staggering 9 million pounds of beef are being recalled by Northern California processing plant, apparently due to incomplete inspection, is the sort of stomach-churning headline that catches readers’ eyes.
It follows last month’s tainted-chicken problem, also in California, that eventually sickened prison inmates in Tennessee, according to CorrectionsOne.com, a site with news about the corrections industry. (As an aside – reports say the poultry was never intended for retail sale, but for “institutional use.” Are there different quality and inspections standards for food to be used in prisons, hospitals, schools and the like? That might make for an interesting approach. What food processors in your neck of the woods sell to institutions and how are the products different from those on supermarket shelves?)
Food Safety News reports a variety of other recent food contamination issues, as well, from peanuts in bags of almonds to tainted tomatoes.
Back to the ranch: According to reports, the beef recall is the second recent recall for that company. Reuters write that the affected meat products were distributed in California, Florida, Texas and Illinois – an interesting geographic distribution. But even if that isn’t your territory, we all eat and sometimes worry about what’s in what we’re eating – so you might want to respond to this event with a localized report about food safety and inspection.
Understanding who does what is a tall order in the labyrinthine world of food safety inspection; you might want to start here at the U.S. Department of Agriculture site; the Food Safety and Inspection Services portal lists federal agencies and their areas of responsibility, an organizational chart, links to district offices and so on. You can track down the federal official responsible for food inspections in your region, and also find their counterparts at the state agriculture departments. If you focus on meat, local members of the American Association of Food Safety Veterinarians might have some insight.
As we know, regulators sometimes become entwined with the industries they supervise, and less adversarial and outspoken than consumers might hope. But you can ask about the process of food inspection, the vital statistics on number of inspectors, frequency and rigor of inspections, etc. and at least inform your audience of the existing procedures. Trade organizations and activist groups might offer input, as well, pro or con, on current issues affecting growers, processors and distributors – from rules raised in the Food Safety Modernization Act to inspector training.
In addition to food safety at the production and transportation level, you can inform readers about retail safety issues, as well, at places like supermarkets, food trucks, restaurants, hotels, cafeterias and casino buffets. If you cover transportation, how about a story on airline food handling protocol? A retail writer could look into safety related to free samples handed out at delis, bakeries and big-box stores like Costco.
The Twitter hashtag #foodsafety turns up some interesting ideas and sources, from the EHA Consulting Group, which offers crisis management and other services to the food industry, and this interesting report from a British newspaper, the Croydon Advertiser, that features a cool interactive map of local restaurants’ health inspection results. You also might want to follow the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service Twitter feed.
Here’s an interesting article by Mara Knaub of the Yuma (Ariz.) Sun, about the role of county health inspectors in rating restaurant safety; the article tells readers how and how often eateries are inspected, where to find public records related to inspections and how to interpret the ratings inspectors assign to individual establishments.
Clearly food-safety issues are ripe for video and online presentations. KTNV, the ABC station in Las Vegas, did an entire “Dirty Dining” series exposing the health inspection issues at various local restaurants.
Resources for reporters include The Center for Food Safety, the federal FoodSafety.gov site and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s food safety portal.