The Politics of Food Fear

We live in a strange time. Particularly when it comes to food. Without any doubt our food is cheaper, safer and of higher quality than ever before. We have far more choices. We have far more industry and government scrutiny. Yet, more and more people–particularly young people–seem scared to death of their food. I saw a recent study that showed concern about our food is rising faster and is a greater concern in our country than foreign policy and just about any issue that affects our future.

Food fear stems from multiple causes. Let me suggest a couple at least.

  1. Constant, global news.
    Media (including bloggers, social media channel managers, lawyers, etc.) understand there is public concern around food. So if a child in Budapest gets sick from food poisoning, somewhere it is going to show up on some form of news. Make it a dozen children, or a fatality or two and it is going to grab major headlines. Chipotle (not may favorite food outlet for their cynical effort to contribute to food fear through marketing) closed 43 restaurants in the Pacific Northwest for 49 cases of e.coli. Not sure how many of those are hospitalized and there are no fatalities, thank God and good medical care. But it made global news. A story on KOMO News in Seattle a few days ago highlighted the fact that 48 million Americans get sick from some form of food poisoning every year. Holy Mackerel! Talk about your epidemics. Yet, what is this compared to what it was maybe 50 years ago?
  2. Media, Social Media and FUDO.
    Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt and Outrage are the currency of attention and attention is what everyone in any form of the media business needs desperately. You can’t put cute cats or farting babies on every newscast, so you have to do something to capture eyes. That KOMO report I mentioned is an example. There is no context provided, no comparison, no moderating comment about this being because of dramatically improved reporting, medical care and government scrutiny. That it does not represent the kind of danger to the population that this report would suggest.

    An even better example of this is the recent news from the World Health Organization that red meat and processed meat in particular is right up there with cigarettes and plutonium. The truth is the actual report is much, much less scary than the headlines and the report itself is deeply flawed because they bagged on the question of any safe quantity. Nevertheless, this report provides exactly the FUDO currency news outlets need–particularly for headlines.  Note the considerable difference between the headline and the story in this BBC account below.

  3. Food fear and politics
    But this story about red and processed meat and the World Health Organization is more than about media and their sensationalism for survival. It is also about politics. There is no doubt that many will be jumping up and down about this report, not just because they are vegans, but because it seems now clear that the WHO announcement is driven more by global first world vs third world politics and particularly around global warming. The Wall Street Journal identified the connection in this article.

    Your reaction to that article will likely depend on your orientation to the issues of global warming, raising beef or other animals, and food safety. I recently read an intriguing book called “Defending Beef” written by a former environmental lawyer who went around suing people for destroying the environment, then met and married a grass fed beef farmer. She takes on the global warming connection between raising beef and greenhouse gases. I found it pretty convincing even though I think it a bit funny how only the benefits to the environment of animal farming, which she powerfully documents, accrue to grass fed beef and no beef that are fed any grains.

    I hope people look closely at the reports about the red meat scare. You will see that yes, consuming vast amounts of almost any substance is going to harm you and that includes too much bacon and sausage. However, the likely impact of you on what most people eat is minimal at best and most likely non-existent. That does not keep those in that building in New York from sending a message that they know will result in the scary headlines of almost any news outlet carrying the story. The sad thing in my mind is as the truth becomes more clear, it is the credibility of the World Health Organization that will be hurt, and that may be to the detriment of all of us. In the meantime, the media beast has been fed and those who think our food is killing us have one more piece of “evidence.”

  1. Screenshot 2015-11-12 10.21.54

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