How did the media, our professional associates in corporate and government information, Maine Governor Paul R. LePage, Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Ben Brancel, Sheldon Lavin, POTUS (the president of the United States), and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg end up on the Food Safety News 2014 naughty list?
It’s complicated. Make yourself an eggnog and sit back. (You may need something to stiffen that eggnog.) But here’s the view as we look down on food-safety news land and as we all get ready to enjoy Christmas, or just use this much-needed break to rest up.
We, the media
We, the media, produced the Ebola scare for the U.S. because it generated ratings and readers. We made up stories and sold them to magazine editors who were both gullible and lazy. We helped instigate riots when we presented information we knew was incomplete.
The Ebola scare in the U.S. was so intensely hot for awhile that it was the most searched-for word of 2014, according to Google. Would a foreign army landing on the beaches of the Gulf Coast have gotten more panicked coverage than one man sickened with Ebola got when he landed in Dallas?
The panic ended when no cases originated in the U.S., the White House named an Ebola czar and stopped talking about it, and someone made the merciful decision to stop CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden from doing anymore TV interviews.
When the scare ended, so did almost all coverage of the real Ebola crisis in Western Africa.
How far back this sent infectious disease reporting remains to be seen. Few American who got that hot shot of Ebola scare reporting were left with any useful understanding of the far greater risks we face on a routine basis, including the foodborne variety. The damage from all that sloppy reporting is outside our wheelhouse, but other than to put paper sacks over our heads, there is not much we can do about it. But we know naughty when we see it, and 2014 was a very bad year for the media. Sorry about that.
Our professional associates in corporate and government public information
We are talking here about the corporate public-relations people and the so-called public information officers (PIOs) we work with daily.
There are some exceptions, we might call them old-school types, who still know how to develop working relationships with reporters based on trust and professionalism. No Christmas presents are exchanged, but these are the folks who still have a human face.
Unfortunately, old-schoolers, including some who are in their 20s, are rare today. We’ve come to find that corporate public relations exists to create an illusion of openness for the company without any intention of ever delivering.
An even more disturbing trend is underway among the government PIOs, whose salaries are paid by the taxpayers. It used to be that PIOs would be driven by the information they could quickly get out from their agencies. The really good ones could be quoted by their bosses.
Today, PIOs are on a mission, which, again with rare exceptions, is to minimize or extinguish the information coming from their agency or department. Anyone doing real journalism is viewed as a threat, and your tax money is now going for those communications tools where the government has total control of the message and is able to meter the real information down to a trickle.
These are not new trends, but the feeling that they’ve reached a tipping point was very much part of the journalistic atmosphere in 2014.
Gov. Paul R. LePage
Moving on to a single individual, Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage falls on the naughty list for a very specific reason.
It’s not that, during 2014, the narrowly re-elected Republican governor let the Maine Center for Disease Control go without the leadership of a director or state epidemiologist, or even the agency’s weird decision to keep secret the name of a restaurant where someone worked while infected with Hepatitis A.
No, LePage falls on the naughty list because he really messed up what might have been a teachable moment regarding when a state’s top public health authority may, or may not, order someone held in quarantine. Everyone remembers the healthcare worker traveling home from West Africa, first to New Jersey and then home to Maine.
LePage took time out from his close campaign to put state police outside the woman’s Fort Kent house, and, for three days, he made one strong statement after another.
“Maine has established protocols for the monitoring of any individual who returns to Maine after traveling from West African regions that have been impacted by Ebola,” he said. “These protocols include monitoring the individual for 21 days after the last possible exposure to Ebola. Twenty-one days is the longest time it can take from the time a person is infected with Ebola until that person has symptoms of Ebola,” he continued, adding, “But we must be vigilant in our duty to protect the health and safety of all Mainers, as well as anyone who may come in contact with someone who has been exposed to Ebola.”
“We commend all healthcare workers for their humanitarian work in West Africa and other regions of the world, and we are proud that they are always ready to help others,” LePage went on. “Upon the healthcare workers’ return home, we will follow the guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for medical workers who have been in contact with Ebola patients. Additionally, we will work with the healthcare worker to establish an in-home quarantine protocol to ensure there is no direct contact with other Mainers until the period for potential infection has passed. We will help make sure the healthcare worker has everything to make this time as comfortable as possible.”
The quarantined nurse went bicycle riding and hired an attorney, who went to a lower state court and got her sprung short of her 21-day quarantine period. LePage then just said he did everything he could, but the judge had lifted the restrictions and he’d abide by state law.
Maybe his campaign polling showed he was on the wrong side of the issue. Governors usually don’t accept lower-court decisions, and they can get their appeals heard all the way up to the state supreme court pretty fast.
State quarantine laws have not been used much in recent years, but, a generation or two ago, people commonly accepted orders to stay put until some infectious disease was brought under control. One thing is for certain: Such laws were never intended for use just to make a politician look tough during a campaign — or not.
Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Ben Brancel, himself a dairy farmer for 22 years and who still runs Angus and Hereford cattle, took over the helm of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in January 2011, six months before an outbreak from contaminated raw milk at a Racine elementary school. He makes his way on to our naughty list because he managed to keep the name of the dairy farm associated with that outbreak secret for 3.5 years.
Brancel, who now serves at the pleasure of WI Republican Gov. Scott Brown, is representative of those state departments of agriculture which sometimes put their mission to protect and promote their farm and ranch sectors ahead of food safety.
When state health departments or state agriculture departments attempt to hide such basic information — such as who, what, and why — from the public, they are only harming themselves by generating ever more reason to distrust government. Brancel certainly should know that. He also headed Wisconsin’s agriculture department under former WI Gov. Tommy Thompson.
After another school-related outbreak occurred in Wisconsin last September, causing numerous illnesses, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel decided it had had enough. The newspaper enlisted open-records advocates and used state law to force the release of the names of the involved raw-milk farms.
“It’s outrageous. The public has the right to this information. Who is the state of Wisconsin trying to protect, the public or bad operators?” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
Naughty, Mr. Secretary.
With $ 6 billion in worldwide revenue, OSI Group Chairman and CEO Sheldon Lavin could not have gone into 2014 on a higher note. He’d just been inducted into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame. He was introduced in November 2013 to the elite gathering at the Drake Hotel in Chicago by McDonald’s President Jeff Stratton, who spoke of Lavin’s connection to the “McFamily,”a reference to OSI’s meat-supplying relationship with McDonald’s going back to the legendary Ray Kroc.
Then 2014 dawned and brought an international food-safety crisis that landed Lavin on this year’s naughty list. That’s a bit of a step down from the Forbes 100 list of largest privately owned companies.
OSI Group in 2014 spanned the world, with the company supplying meat in China and Japan to McDonald’s, Yum! Brands’ KFC and Pizza Hut restaurants, and many others.
Then last summer, Dragon TV struck with a report that OSI’s Shanghai Husi Food Co. Ltd. was selling meat to these fast-food outlets that was past its expiration dates and that production facilities were far from sanitary. The Chinese public reacts strongly to food-safety threats, especially where American companies are involved.
Almost immediately, contracts were cancelled and the Shanghai unit closed down except for staff to deal with the investigation. Levin was forced into crisis mode. OSI continues to have expansive operations in China, but the cleanup from that Dragon TV airing will continue well into 2015.
More than a year ago, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen left government service, leaving open the position of Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA. According to the law, the position shall be filled by presidential appointment and confirmed by the United States Senate.
Leaving this position open is not an option. And it’s enough to put President Barack Obama on the naughty list, no matter how meritorious his overall record on food safety.
When USDA was reorganized by Congress in 1993, the added currency of the agency’s top food-safety officer being a presidential appointment with Senate confirmation was recognized as being in the public interest.
Both the White House and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack have shown their flexibility and creativity in keep the food-safety shop in good hands. They’ve done it with an “Odd Couple” pairing. Brian Ronholm, who was Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety under Hagen, then named Acting Under Secretary after she departed, recently assumed the Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety title again.
Then, in late September, FSIS Administrator Al Almanza was also named USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. In other words, there are now two deputies at the agency, but the president did not make an appointment to the top job.
Only POTUS (the president of the U.S.) can move this one off the dime. It would be unfortunate if his food-safety legacy is scuffed by leaving the appointment of the next Under Secretary for Food Safety to whoever follows him into the Oval Office. Mr. President, the clock is ticking, and you shall not pass this way again.
Margaret A. Hamburg
Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg. Perhaps you’ve heard of her. But, if you are involved in food safety, even if you attend a lot of the various conferences and seminars held throughout the year, chances are you’ve never laid eyes on the commissioner.
It’s not unusual for the FDA Commissioner to spend most of his or her time on the drug side of the house. Approval of drugs and medical devices is where the glamor and big bucks can be found once you leave public office. Besides, when you’ve got talent like Mike Taylor holding down the food side, why not just let it be?
Still, we’ve been watching from afar for a long time and could not help but notice the only published remarks Hamburg made before a food group in 2014 were to the World Spice Congress in Cochin, India, last February. To be fair, she did also speak in Washington, D.C., last February on the nutrition facts label.
We understand favoring one kid over the other. We’d just like to see her around campus sometime.
Food Safety News