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Recent flap highlights importance of ag media

The FSIS had issues with an article in the Washington Post.

Tim Hearden, Western Farm Press

April 20, 2019

2 Min Read
Marissa Lange, president of the Lodi, Calif.-based LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards, talks to a reporter during the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, Calif. Agricultural media often prove their worth in their knowledge-based coverage.

Recently the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service condemned the Washington Post over a story claiming the agency plans to give the pork industry more power over safety inspections at processing plants.

The disagreement centered around a proposed rule that was about 20 years in the making.

The rule includes a voluntary, opt-in inspection system, called New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS), for market hog establishments, in addition to separate mandatory testing requirements for all swine establishments. The proposal, unveiled in February, follows a lengthy evaluation in five market hog facilities, officials say.

The plans and data-gathering for the proposal started in the early 1990s under then-President Bill Clinton, and as subsequent administrations have sought to modernize meat inspections, this approach was finalized for poultry under then-President Barack Obama in 2014, according to agency officials.

In its April 3 story, titled “Pork industry soon will have more power over meat inspections,” the Post began, “The Trump administration plans to shift much of the power and responsibility for food safety inspections in hog plants to the pork industry” as early as next month.

This apparently didn’t sit well with the career bureaucrats who worked on the project, many of whom – truth be told – probably don’t really like President Donald Trump. And while the agency’s response didn’t quite rise to the level of one of Trump’s over-the-top “enemy of the people” tweets, it was nonetheless pointed.

Related:USDA blasts Washington Post

In a lengthy release that rebuts a dozen different points from the Post’s article, the agency calls the lead paragraph “deliberately misleading” and accuses the newspaper of not telling the full story.

“Despite FSIS spending countless hours responding to the Post and providing clarification about the proposed rule, the Post chose to ignore the information and went with an already formed opinion and headline,” the agency asserts.

“It’s important to understand that under the proposal, establishment employees will not conduct inspections and they will not condemn animals,” the FSIS states.

Our wire service, Bloomberg News, called the media-bashing release “a highly unusual move” for the USDA, which is a fair assessment. But it’s not unprecedented.

In 2009, then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack cited the need for accuracy in public health to persuade media organizations to stop referring to the H1N1 virus as swine flu, with only limited success.

While the National Newspaper Association urged its member publications to use the more clinical term to give a break to the then-struggling pork industry, The Associated Press and many major outlets didn’t budge.

For me, these flaps show the value of agricultural media. Ag is very complex; each crop and animal has its own science, economics, history and regulations. It takes years of immersion even to comprehend what you don’t know.

Even assuming pure motives, most general-media reporters don’t have that background, and thus are susceptible to misconceptions. And many are too set in their preconceived ideas to learn.

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