How the Media Massage the Pet Food Scare

by Jeff Siegel

The news over the weekend that many of the major pet food manufacturers issued voluntary recalls for some of their food sent countless pictures of cute puppies out over the airwaves, through the cyber ether, and onto newsprint.

Yet, for all of the frenzy, did any of the stories actually report what was happening? Hardly.

In fact, this story demonstrated just how far the media have sunk, and how pitiful their product has become. (And I use the word product purposely, in much the same way that a head of lettuce or a pair of shoes are products. The media don’t see what they do as news anymore, so why should I?) Consider just the following -- and please keep in mind that I own dogs, have always owned dogs, and checked Universal Product Codes (UPC) to make sure I wasn’t killing them with bad food:

• Pay careful attention to how long this story is news. Have we heard anything lately about the Walter Reed scandal? How long did that last? A week? My local NBC affiliate, which didn’t mention Walter Reed on its morning news for three weeks, led its Friday newscast with the pet food story.

• This story is a classic example of what news has become, and who watches news. Especially when considering local news, the poduct is aimed at 18-to-35-year-old women. On my NBC station (KXAS-TV), the story was reported to scare the hell out of them, complete with quotes from young women saying how scared they were. It didn’t mention that no dogs had died* and that people who fed dry food were okay. These kinds of stories are cheap to do – just send a crew to a pet store – and it has great visuals, with cute young women and cute puppies.

• The best-selling brand of dog food in the U.S. is Wal-Mart’s Ol’ Roy (named after Sam Walton’s dog). Several of its products were included in the recall. But few of the news stories I found – including the Associated Press version that ran in many major newspapers on Sunday – mentioned Ol’ Roy. An AP story on Friday said the Wal-Mart store brand was recalled, but didn’t name the food. So Wal-Mart got a free pass. Why was that, while other brands, including Nutro, which has a tiny fraction of Ol’ Roy’s sales, were mentioned by name?

• This is at least the third major recent food recall (after spinach and peanut butter) in the past six months. No stories I saw mentioned that. This may or may not be a pattern, which can be traced to fewer plant inspections, budget cuts at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the like, but it would be nice if someone in the media at least asked the question.

*At the time this commentary was originally filed no dogs were reported killed by the tainted food. However, in its first press release after the food scare started to grow, the FDA listed one dog and nine cats as killed by the pet food distributed by Menu Foods. (3/20/2007)

Update #1: Five days after this story broke, the FDA now tells USA Today and other media outlets that the agency had never inspected Menu Foods’ plant in Kansas, the source of the tainted food, at least before consumer complaints produced an inspection as part of the current investigation. The number of pet deaths has also increased since this commentary was originally filed. To those who wish to continue making the author’s point, for the latest, please check this story, from The Washington Post. (3/21/2007)

Update #2: For a follow-up commentary on this posting, please see: “Measuring the Value of Human Lives.” (3/21/2007)

(Photo from Xerones of York, England whose cat Ismael is safely outside the recall zone; photo obtained via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.)

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Anonymous said...

I am glad you guys have detailed info on the pet food scare. It makes me upset to hear that the fda does'nt keep up with this part of the industry like they should.
I have a dig, she is my baby and I would want to press charges like crazy to any company that doesn't keep up with they're products safty. They should keep up with all the safty measures that could effect any living being!

Rick Rockwell said...

We understand that pet owners care about their animals. That's why it is wrong for the media to use those fears to over-hype stories and for the media merely to report about those fears rather than doing the necessary investigative work.

Apparently, because new information is coming out late on a Friday about wheat contaminated by rat poison which is at the heart of this story, all of this will be with us through the weekend and into next week too.

One only wonders that if there had been stronger oversight in the first place if all of this could have been avoided.

Rick Rockwell said...

It seems every weekend that new information comes in on this story, which takes it in unexpected directions, so here are links to additional updates.

First, now the FDA believes that an additive found in plastics may have been the real culprit that killed some animals and severely injured others.

Also, Menu Foods has announced a recall of one of its brands of dry food now.

Finally, although the FDA still only lists 14 pets as being killed by the tainted food, other groups are reporting that hundreds of pets may have been killed or severely injured by the tainted food.

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Rick Rockwell said...

It seems this story will not be snuffed out. But almost as predicted the real story is how the FDA is behind the curve on inspections.

Please note now it appears that hog farmers may have fed the tainted pet food to pigs. So now, pigs in in six states are under quarantine to keep the tainted food out of the human food supply.

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