By: Eric Mittenthal
“Lazy, unfair and pointlessly vague.” That’s how the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi described the use of the term “the media” in an article addressing the constant barrage of complaints people wage against “the media” these days. Many of my journalism friends shared it, agreeing that it is frustrating to be classified into one large, evil group when the reality is that there are thousands of outlets and individuals, each with different perspectives, determining how news is covered. As a former journalist, it’s a perspective I agree with, but it’s a concept that should apply to journalists as well, and unfortunately often doesn’t…
…Which brings us to this weekend’s New York Times Magazine’s food issue. It asks “Can Big Food Change?” And it features stories by Michael Pollan headlined “Big Food Strikes Back” and Ted Genoways focused on transparency in the meat industry. Pollan’s method of criticizing Big Food, Big Ag and Big Meat has clearly sold a lot of books, though one might argue that it is lazy, unfair and pointlessly vague. Certainly the Meat Institute has large companies as members, but also a wide array of smaller companies providing a variety of products ranging from conventional to organic and everything in between. As an organization, we represent our many members’ interests in Washington, DC, just as other trade organizations representing every product and industry imaginable, big and small, do as well. Our members feed the 95 percent of Americans who enjoy meat and poultry products with some of the most nutrient dense food available, they employ 1.87 million Americans, support their communities with $108.42 billion in direct taxes and contribute more than a trillion dollars to our economy, but to some we are simply Big Meat.
We were aware of the Genoways story last week when fact checkers sent us a list of Meat Institute positions to confirm, all of which needed correcting. Genoways has long been a critic of the USDA HACCP Inspection Models Project (HIMP) program, even if his understanding of it is often lacking. In his story, Genoways longs for the days when public tours of meat companies were done. He argues that the practice stopped because of a “too cozy” relationship between government and business. An alternate explanation would be that our understanding of biosecurity and food safety has advanced to the point where people walking through a plant on a daily basis would be detrimental to both. As much as transparency is important, food safety must be the priority. As an industry, we’ve worked hard to improve transparency in ways that do not impact food safety, developing Glass Walls videos with Temple Grandin to show how animals are typically handled in plants and how different products are made. A video highlighting various food safety interventions in the industry is coming soon. It is no surprise that the significant food safety improvement in our products is nowhere to be found in the story.
Improved transparency is a concept that the New York Times Magazine and its writers might consider themselves. Neither Pollan nor Genoways attempted to speak to us for their stories despite prominently including us. We had to correct errors through fact checkers. This isn’t the first time. A popular theme in the movie Food Inc, produced by Pollan and Eric Schlosser, was that the meat industry refused to speak to them. The fact is, they never asked. But after hearing their claims, NAMI Senior Vice President Janet Riley attended a book talk by Schlosser and gave him her card. She asked him to stop saying that. He thanked her and mailed a note saying they’d talk soon, but he never called. A follow up letter from Riley with the same offer was also ignored. Similarly, the Meat Institute reached out to Genoways multiple times in 2015 offering to speak to him to correct errors in his reporting, but Genoways never responded.
Big Media Takes on Big Food, Big Ag and Big Meat