At the Corner of Food Safety and Media Bias

If universities are biased and the media is lazy, how are we supposed to develop intelligent public policy? Food safety is a case in point.

At first glance it appears that there must be momentous news regarding food safety. Business Week blared the headline "Food-borne Illnesses in U.S. Cost $152B Annually"; the Los Angeles Times trumpeted "Cost of food-borne illnesses is deemed much higher than earlier estimates"; USA Today declared "USA pays price for food-borne illness: $152B a year." All the noise was generated by a paper written by Robert L. Scharff for the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University. Dr. Scharf is an assistant professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences at Ohio State University and once worked at the FDA as an economist.

The paper causing all the hullabaloo is titled "Health-Related Costs From Foodborne Illness In The United States," and whatever the merits of the paper, the whole enterprise shows the utter collapse of both academic and journalistic standards and the difficulty this poses for the making of public policy.

A mere glance at the website of Produce Safety Project, identified as “an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts at Georgetown University,” shows instantly that this “project” and any standard of academic inquiry are inimical. Right on the front page of the website the purpose of the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University is defined:

The Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University seeks the establishment by the Food and Drug Administration of mandatory and enforceable safety standards for domestic and imported fresh produce, from farm to fork.

Now I bow to nobody in my pursuit of safe produce. Four generations of my family have worked in the produce industry here in America, and I’ve built a career speaking out on food safety issues. But can I possibly be the only one who thinks that Georgetown University disgraces itself by having such an entity use its name? After all, the purpose of a university is to foster free inquiry and research, to encourage the exploration of new ideas, and to encourage people to think deeply about various subjects.

Apparently, though, free inquiry and research are no longer needed at Georgetown, as the Produce Safety Project has a priori determined that the correct policy response to food safety concerns is that the FDA should establish mandatory and enforceable safety standards. Where this leaves students or faculty members who might think differently or whose research might lead in a different direction is hard to say. There seems to be no place at Georgetown for those who might say that the USDA, rather than the FDA, should play a bigger role ... or that societal resources should be invested in reducing automobile accidents rather than establishing mandatory FDA produce safety standards … or that “farm to fork” standards, presumably including “mandatory and enforceable” sanctions against consumers -- that’s the fork part -- are too intrusive. The thinking has already been done.

As upsetting as Georgetown’s abandonment of the spirit of free academic inquiry may be, the wholesale failure of so much of the media to report comprehensively on this paper and its publication is simply astounding.

Although most media reports credited Georgetown University with the study -- ABC News, for example, identified the study as “an initiative of the Pew Charitable trusts and Georgetown University” -- virtually no media outlets took the time to explain that the study was published by a self-professed advocacy center that has as its mission the enactment of specific policy goals.