On August 18, 2008, a smattering of newspapers across the country dutifully cautions Canadians to toss out the meat in their refrigerator drawers. The Victoria Times Colonist prints a story on page A4 headlined “Warning issued about meats” running fewer than 100 words. It’s about a possible contamination of Sure Slice roast beef and corned beef by Listeria monocytogenes, a pathogenic bacteria. The Alaska Highway News, in Fort St. John, B.C., also has an article “Warning against certain Maple Leaf products” including the symptoms of listeriosis: high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness and nausea. Several other publications mention the recall, but for three days the nation’s major media outlets ignore the admonition from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Parents make bologna sandwiches for their kids, brown-baggers pack ham and cheese to eat at their desks and seniors nosh on corned beef in cafeterias across the country. It’s lunch meat as usual.

By August 21, the quiet recall takes an alarming turn. “Listeria-a nightmare in a processing plant” squealsThe Globe and Mail. Its article claims that listeria is a bacterium more fatal than salmonella. Stories seem divided on whether the number of ill people is “16” or “dozens,” but reports ominously agree “more cases are expected.” By August 23, no one is safe. “Man, 64, was served tainted food in hospital,” alerts page A1 of the Calgary Herald. The finger pointing also begins that day. “Health worries surfaced long before any meat was recalled,” reports the Prince George Citizen, suggesting faulty food-safety systems are the culprit.

Maple Leaf goes from the frying pan to the fire on August 24, when the CFIA’s test results trace the outbreak to a Toronto processing plant. The recall widens from 23 items to include all 220 of Maple Leaf’s products. Microscope images of slime-green bacteria swim gloomily in the window of every National Post newspaper box, part of its enormous cover story. It’s next to impossible to open a paper or watch the news without seeing hazmat-clad workers hosing down equipment like a deleted scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. TheGlobe publishes an article entitled “Infection incubates for up to 90 days” on August 25. If readers aren’t already sick with fear, they still have three months to fret about deadly bacteria colonizing their entrails. TheEdmonton Journal offers a listeria prediction the next day: “Bug may have adapted to evade checks; deadly bacterium could escape best sanitation effort.”

On August 27, headlines claim the public wasn’t properly warned about the possible outbreak and listeriosis dangers; some publications infuse their headlines with a tone of desperation. Fredericton’s Daily Gleanerpublishes “More products on recall list; it’s probably the worst thing to happen in a really long time,” on page A1.

By October 9, Maple Leaf president and CEO Michael McCain seemed fed up with six weeks of media scrutiny. After all, the company had always intended to be honest, open and truthful with the public from the onset of the contamination. At McCain’s news conference that day, reporters learned that tests from Maple Leaf Foods’ closed processing plant were still coming back listeria-positive. McCain tossed the issue back at the press: “To suggest shock at a positive environmental test [for listeria] is at best misguided, and at worst, fear-mongering.” But journalists viewed his reaction as desperate and his criticism as ad hominem.

Coverage of the Maple Leaf Foods listeria contamination at the end of last summer provoked a huge scandal and changed the eating patterns of families across the country. A year ago, the media rarely mentioned listeria. There were (and still are) plenty of stories about bovine spongiform encephalopathy-otherwise known as mad cow disease-making headlines, even though as far as Health Canada knows, no one has died from eating Canadian bse-contaminated beef.

The listeriosis outbreak took 20 lives and soon the media were using it as an excuse to examine myriad problems in the Canadian food industry, from substandard safety regulations, to the dangers of eating mass-produced foods served up by huge conglomerates instead of family farms. But the message to the consumer was clear: listeria is public enemy number one.

Grocery shopping is to food poisoning what driving a car is to a smash-up. The cfia predicts that Canadians will suffer from 11 to 13 million cases of food-borne illness this year, and the government estimates that 2,900 people will die on the road. Yet society keeps driving and eating, generally unmindful of the peril lurking at every stop sign and in every bite. That is, until a catastrophe such as the listeria outbreak, which the media treat more like a plane crash than a five-car pile-up. The chances of perishing in a plane are astronomically low-such an anomaly, in fact, that any jet going down is a lot more newsworthy than any car crash not involving a member of the British royal family. Large-scale collisions are often media feeding frenzies, and the public can develop a warped perception of reality-a misplaced anxiety about the dangers that surround them.

The hysteria over listeria made Maple Leaf Foods, the largest food processor in the country, crash like a Boeing 747. McCain took responsibility for the outbreak in a way that faceless crops of salmonella-laden spinach do not. The company had wings that spanned the entire country, so the tainted-meat products-processed meat being a commodity consumed daily by many families and a staple in institutions and group homes-affected Canadians in a far greater way than more typical recalls.

The Toronto Star‘s Robert Cribb, who covered the listeria story in a series of in-depth investigations, disagrees with McCain’s claim that the media sensationalized the issue. “Here’s what I don’t get about that argument: There are 20 dead people. Is that fear-mongering? Are we making it up? If we agree that 20 dead people is perfectly acceptable and standard operating procedure, then I’m fear-mongering,” he says. “But if we agree that this is unacceptable, then perhaps we have something to report. Perhaps there should be some vigorous public discussion about a nationwide public health crisis.” Cribb believes in making liberal amounts of information available to those who seek it, which he says summarizes the public responsibility of a journalist nicely.

That is unless the journalist places more weight on context than the volume of information available, which is the opinion of Jennifer Tryon, a reporter in her third year as health specialist at Global National. She can understand the epidemiological concerns involved here, and has a few of her own. She covered listeria from its outbreak until its slow fade from view. This meant digging for leads when the listeriosis story ran in the top spot on the national news program for 12 days straight. And in a medium that relies so heavily on images, the listeria case wasn’t easy to cover.

Tryon was frustrated by the way the listeria outbreak was handled by other reporters-listeria is ubiquitous in our environment, so how had the story grown so large? “I wish people knew more about how common listeria already is and how often the CFIA posts listeria contamination in other products on their website,” says Tryon, who adds that she’s worried people could be so alarmed by the outbreak that the mere mention of the bacteria would have them calling for its eradication. But in this case, she thinks the public had a right to be concerned. Unfortunately, the listeria bacterium is, as it always has been, cheerfully at home in Canadian soil, vegetation, water, sewage, silage and the excrement of humans and animals.

Stephanie Wolfe, an epidemiologist specializing in communicable diseases who works in Barrie, Ontario, agrees with Tryon: journalists need to show people that bacteria exist in the world, but should emphasize risk management over fear. Wolfe uses the E. coli outbreak at Walkerton in 2000 as an example. “Most of us have E. coli in our gut,” she says. “It exists in nature, in human beings and in a lot of things you come in contact with.” In the Maple Leaf case it was lunch meat, but bacterial growth can also crop up in produce such as sprouts and tomatoes, which were recently linked to salmonella; or spinach, which was linked to both salmonella and E. coli. Instead of hand-wringing and body counting, for future tainted-food crises Wolfe suggests providing the public with an out-line of proper food-handling techniques that will help prevent illness. “There is a danger of complacency when the media covers tainted food other than for reasons of bringing out public-health messaging, which is what I wish they would do. We want to get the message out, not just sell newspapers or make people fearful.”

But as much as journalists may agree with Wolfe, pushing her agenda is not always feasible. “No one’s going to give me airtime to talk about how safe listeria really is,” says Tryon, adding that for her, it was especially crucial to include context in this story. “It’s a challenge talking to editors, convincing them that there’s always some contamination, that people’s bodies can handle it.”

It’s also a challenge to keep reporters and editors out of the buzzword quagmire. In October 2008, theCanadian Medical Association Journal printed an editorial that said, “In August, Canada experienced the worst epidemic of listeriosis in the world.” Papers and broadcasters across the country then picked up the remark.

But epidemic is a scary word. “An outbreak is defined by the number of cases above the baseline in a localized population,” says Wolfe. “And an epidemic is a more widespread outbreak-it’s over a larger population and over a longer time.” What happened with listeria could be classified as either one. Wolfe says she’d call it a national outbreak, but wouldn’t disagree with the term epidemic, although it’s more provocative. “I think sometimes the words are used to sensationalize things or politically push buttons.”

This button-pushing is something Maclean’s writer Michael Friscolanti alludes to in his thoroughly researched article entitled “How safe is your food?” published October 30. The piece specifically addresses one central issue defining the coverage of listeria: that the bacterium is everywhere and, according to Friscolanti, the average human consumes it 100 times per year. “You’ve eaten it before and you will again. And-as heart-less as this may sound-the risk of death truly is astronomically low. You are much more likely to choke on your lunch than catch listeriosis from it.”

Since the outbreak, some newspapers have picked up on new listeria contaminations and mused on the social aftermath of the outbreak. But just because listeria garnered plenty of coverage after the 2008 outbreak, that doesn’t mean other recalls are getting more attention. Most of the CFIA’s warnings still sit lazily on its webpage, largely unreported by major news outlets. In October, the CFIA announced an outbreak of E. coli in iceberg lettuce. According to the notice, symptoms can include “abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. Some people may have seizures or strokes and some may need blood transfusions and kidney dialysis.” While the case wasn’t ignored, it received far less coverage than the listeria scare. Little wonder then, that some exasperated journalists felt the coverage of the Maple Leaf outbreak deserved the moniker “listeria hysteria.”

A health story such as listeria exposes the divide between journalism’s paratroopers, who drop in to cover tainted-food stories with no experience in health reporting, and the veterans on the beat. Tryon is often frustrated by this separation. While she recognizes that it’s hard to gather all the necessary background and contextual information needed to accurately report a health story, especially on tight deadlines, she can’t help but notice it’s the beat reporters who do the more accurate reporting.

Cribb agrees and says Canada’s complicated regulatory systems make it even more difficult for reporters. “You’ve got three different levels of government overseeing food,” he says. “They have completely different responsibilities. At least five different agencies have their hands in this; to understand just the basic regulatory system, how it works and who to ask specific questions takes a long time.”

Beat reporting comes with its own unique set of cautions. Tryon admits her first reaction to the tainted-meat recall was that it wasn’t a story-after all, the CFIA posts warnings regularly. Before leaping, she waited to see what was unusual about this case. “Maybe I was becoming more desensitized because I know more about it.” This hesitation seems to suggest the numbing of health reporters toward tainted-food stories across the country-or else the major media outlets would have reported on the original Maple Leaf recall. Tryon remembers the e-mails that flooded in after the story broke and the real consumer fear she saw in them. “I don’t know if we’re to blame for that fear,” she says, considering the good and bad reporting done on the outbreak. “I know I’ve told them what I know to be true.”

The truth is of little assistance if it arrives too late. Among the media outlets that first reported the recall before it became a national outbreak was the Alaska Highway News. (Fort St. John is northeastern B.C.’s largest hub and over 25,000 people from the surrounding area go there to stock up on groceries and supplies.) Another was the Victoria Times Colonist, which is in a city that ties St. Catharines-Niagara for the highest percentage of octogenarians in any of Canada’s metropolitan areas. By staying on top of the recalls, the Times Colonist showed that it knows its audience. The majority of fatalities were seniors over the age of 80-most of them living in nursing homes. In fact, most major food-related pathogenic bacteria, including salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter, primarily affect the same three groups: pregnant women, infants and the elderly. And Canada’s population is aging. Seniors could outnumber children within 10 years, and the proportion of elderly people will accelerate once the baby boomers hit 65. As seniors become unable to cook for themselves, they will rely more heavily on processed foods like the meats that led to the listeriosis outbreak. To supply the country with responsible journalism, media outlets will have to decide how best to inform the aging population about food contamination.

With Canada’s increased number of elderly citizens comes an increased susceptibility to food-related illness. Regular public access to CFIA warnings through the media would help avoid another Maple Leaf-style meltdown-or at least reduce the blame game that followed. Newspapers and broadcasters can do a better job of informing people about food recalls while eliminating the plane-crash reporting that followed the Maple Leaf outbreak. And since eating is one lifelong hazard to our health that’s not going away, journalists ought to start incorporating some perspective into daily reporting.

André Picard, who has a decade of experience as a public health reporter, is interested in the bigger picture of food coverage in Canada. “We do these little snapshots,” he says of the spontaneous eruptions of tainted-food stories in the news, “but I don’t think we do the context very well. We don’t show the way that food poisoning happens constantly.” He would like health and food reporting to present a balanced and consistent commentary on the constant food challenges and recalls posted by the CFIA. This way, the gaps in our government’s management and regulation of national food-safety standards would become more apparent, and recognizing them would help us learn from our mistakes.

If reporters took a step back from the airplane crashes of the food world and reflected on the car collisions that are the small-scale recalls, it might give readers and viewers a chance to make dietary changes before it’s too late. It might also lead to a more informed and influential public voice advocating for change in food-safety standards. Following this model, people could get their news without a dose of fridge-padlocking food drama. As Picard says, “The important story is very rarely right in front of you.”

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About the author

Jacqueline Nelson was the Production Editor for the Spring 2009 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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