Has there ever been the equal of this month when it comes to fearsome publicity about the food industry? Here's at least some of the negative publicity of various sorts that has pounded the food industry lately:
Seafood caught the opening fusillade when ABC's "PrimeTime Live" broadcast a 20-minute segment charging in most horrifying terms that sanitation for that category is simply not up to snuff. That contention was illustrated with videos from cameras slipped in or admitted into venues such as wholesale fish markets, retail fish stores and supermarket production areas.
Pictures showed scenes of gross sanitation malpractice such as fish dropped on the floor and returned to production, worms being coaxed from fish prior to sale and, in one particularly grotesque segment, a supermarket worker returning product to the case for sale after it had been returned to the store by a customer who claimed it was spoiled.
Then, in like fashion, a "48 Hours" broadcast on CBS broadly tarred sanitation practices concerning many perishable categories, including meat, produce, poultry and seafood.
The first part of the "48 Hours" broadcast focused on the possibility -- indeed, the probability -- of ground-beef contamination. The hour-long broadcast also highlighted the usual litany of food fears such as pesticide residues on produce and bacterial contamination of poultry and seafood, all of it copiously illustrated with videos of questionable practices.
Wedged between those beefy blows to the industry was a fluffy segment on NBC's "Today" morning show about membership clubs. The reportage was light, by any standard, but it did underscore the unit-price spread between clubs and conventional supermarkets.
Finally, even Fox TV's "The Simpsons" cartoon weighed in with an amusing parody of the hidden-video method of guerrilla reporting on the food industry. The program was about a convenience-store worker fired for selling out-of-date meat -- or, more precisely, for failing to find a suitable scapegoat for the company-condoned practice -- after being exposed by pictures taken by a camera hidden in Homer Simpson's hat. So what to think of all this?
It's pretty safe to dismiss "The Simpsons" and even the "Today" show out of hand, but the more serious efforts aimed at reporting on the dark side of the food industry -- the claims raised by "PrimeTime" and "48 Hours" -- inspire a little thought. The problem these publicity hits pose to supermarket retailers, none of whom were specifically identified as being miscreants, is particularly difficult because claims were so amorphous there is little way to refute them effectively. (I'm assuming here that those with questionable practices have corrected them.) Ironically, makers of the branded poultry items identified in the "48 Hours" broadcast may have a better chance of fighting back should they wish to generate publicity about corrected conditions. In some instances, retailers may be able to harvest favorable local publicity by cooperating with reporters from local news media, which are sure to clone countless local versions of the national reportage. If that chance becomes available, supermarket operators may be able to tell local audiences about attractive initiatives concerning sanitation practices, training, product testing or the like. Another tactic that's useful, when attacks are more focused than those in the two broadcasts under consideration, is to take allegations seriously, even if they are preposterous, and offer some guarantee.
Food Lion was able to use that strategy this month in response to charges brought by a consumer gadfly group that the retailer was selling out-of-date baby formula. Food Lion said it would investigate the claim and give any customer who finds out-of-date baby formula a free can. Perhaps in the end the inescapable fact that we aren't all falling dead of contaminated food will eventually work to convince shoppers that some hyperbole is at work in these news-entertainment broadcasts. Even Dan Rather acknowledged at the conclusion of the "48 Hours" broadcast that "cook your food thoroughly" might be the most important conclusion to be drawn.