In my former life, I wrote for a handful of Kansas daily newspapers, working my way northeast from Dodge City to Lawrence.
For the most part, I was a GA (general-assignment) reporter, covering everything from a new Sonic opening or a hospital’s new MRI machine.
I also spent several years, off and on, covering the cops and courts beat, usually the most entertaining job for a reporter.
But it’s not every day that a pure-gold oddball story happens — the university football player arrested after getting stuck in the Taco Bell drive-through window looking for the chalupa he ordered, or the local marijuana advocate failing to get arrested for his cause by sparking up a doobie in the police station lobby.
That’s one end of the spectrum.
At the other end, tragedy.
People die. They’re murdered, electrocuted on the job, killed in a car accident. And sometimes it’s a child.
So many times I found the job distasteful, contacting a parent or relative of a dead child, whether it was foul play, a faulty playpen at daycare or a tractor accident — that’s one I confront from time-to-time when my boys are at Grandpa’s farm.
In making these visits and telephone calls, I can’t say that any insight was gained or that the story gave readers with their own children guidance on how to keep them safe.
Many times, the questions came at me: Do I have children? The point of which (sometimes implied, but mostly stated) being that how could I understand or empathize? Why open up to someone who doesn’t have the ability to convey what the family is going through?
Back then, I could only focus on the facts and details of the story, get the quotes right. What else is there to do?
This isn’t to say writers who don’t share the same background as their sources shouldn’t cover the story, or even that journalists writing about families must have children of their own.
But soon after my first son was born (I was working at The Packer by then), I came to understand why the question of children came up. Every time I read about the death of a child, it’s almost impossible not to put myself, my children, in that story in my mind, however fleetingly.
I left most of that type of reporting when I left daily newspapers behind, because the majority of what The Packer covers is business and much of it is positive.
And here’s what I’ve been leading up to: There’s the rare exception when someone dies from a foodborne illness linked to fresh fruits or vegetables, and sometimes it’s a child.
I’ll never forget the speech Produce Marketing Association president Bryan Silbermann gave at Fresh Summit 2006 in San Diego.
Just weeks after an E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach, Silbermann asked attendees to remember those who died, and the speech ended with a photo of 2-year-old Kyle Allgood on the screens throughout the banquet hall.
I thought of that speech when someone sent me a link to a recent Bloomberg News series on food safety that revisits a number of outbreaks from produce and other foods.
No doubt many in the industry have read it, and have some issues with the conclusions drawn from the reporting. Rightfully so, given the description leading off the stories: “For-profit companies have quietly taken over much of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s role in making sure what Americans eat is safe. They’ve failed to stop illness and deaths.”
Third-party audits are certainly one of the layers of food safety checks that responsible companies take, but there’s nothing sinister going on, quietly or not.
In fact, one of the most vocal complaints from the industry is that Congress is not giving the FDA what it needs to truly fund the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The series does serve as a reminder that despite how far the industry has come in recent years (with in-house testing programs and numerous research projects through the Center for Produce Safety), ongoing recalls and outbreaks tell a different story to consumers.
Mistakes have been made, some leading to hospitalization and deaths. That’s something I believe all growers and shippers reflect on, and hopefully cause them to take stock in food safety protocols at their own operations.
It’s a sound business decision to enact these protocals, of course, but growers aren’t callous, despite media coverage that suggests otherwise.
They only have to look around the dinner table to see the real reason driving the need for food safety.
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