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New study zeros in on television networks’ reaction to salsa salmonella scare

image image Texas Tech agricultural researchers say they have examined network television’s reaction to cracking the mystery of a spate of salmonella in tomatoes and jalapenos a few years ago, and found that for most part coverage was accurate; moreover the national media was surprisingly supportive of tomato growers during the crisis.

During that long summer, food scare headlines were a feared dagger to the heart of Tex-Mex lovers across Texas. At the height of the crisis, several major restaurant chains pulled certain types of tomatoes from their menus. And, federal authorities openly worried about all the ingredients in fresh salsa and pico de gallo. Salsas are typically made with tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, garlic and cilantro.

In a report posted online by the journal Food Protection Trends, researchers led by Erica Irlbeck, a Texas Tech agricultural communications assistant professor, said the findings indicate that many of the television stories were simple, informational pieces telling the public about salmonella’s symptoms and prevention methods, varieties of tomatoes and peppers to avoid, and number of illnesses.

“We found most of the news coverage was based on the facts that were available at the time; however, some networks provided personal opinions and speculation,” Irlbeck said. Five months of news broadcast transcripts from ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC for in 2008 were examined using what’s known as qualitative content analysis.

Texas Tech researchers found anti-government, pro-agricultural producer, and anti-Mexican produce imports were the most common presentations presented by the networks. Specifically, CNN voiced strong disapproval for the manner in which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Congress handled the crisis, Irlbeck said. CNN was also very supportive of tomato growers’ financial distress while they were unable to market their crop.

Before ultimately targeting jalapeno and serrano peppers, government officials kept the focus on tomatoes, banning them for months. Consumer demand plummeted both during the ban and after. The Florida tomato industry alone may have lost more than $100 million. The outbreak also had a dramatic impact on consumer confidence in fresh produce generally, particularly tomatoes.

Irlbeck said the study’s findings are important since they allow agricultural communicators to see how large-scale agricultural news stories are told through television media. “When we know how ag stories are told in the news, we can make a more informed decision when delivering messages during a crisis,” she said.

The salmonella outbreak began in April 2008 with 57 reported cases in Texas and New Mexico. It went nationwide over the summer, eventually affecting at least 1,440 Americans in 43 states and the District of Columbia.

Salmonella is the name of a family of bacteria that lives in the digestive tracts of many kinds of animals. More than 2,000 varieties have been identified in humans. Some make people sicker than others, but the basic symptoms are the same: diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts four to seven days.

Written by Norman Martin

CONTACT: Erica Irlbeck, assistant professor, Department of Agricultural Education and Communications, Texas Tech University at (806) 742-2816 or erica.irlbeck@ttu.edu

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