Balance is Low on CBS's Pecking Order

     “Is there a dirty bird on your dinner plate,” wondered CBS anchor Katie Couric as she hatched a brief and biased news item centered around a new Consumer Reports study on chicken.


     “Bad news,” “Evening News” correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi summed upon the December 4 program. Consumer Reports magazine found that the chicken on your dinner table is “dirtier than ever.”


     Alfonsi aired a clip of a researcher for the publication, Urvashi Rangan, complaining about an “astronomical rate of pathogen contamination.” While Alfonsi did concede that the bacteria is killed when chicken is cooked properly, she added that scientists such as Rangan want “more testing” on poultry.


    That’s not all Rangan and her employer demand of the poultry industry, however.


     A USA Today report by Elizabeth Weise in the December 5 paper quoted Jean Halloran of Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine, saying that more regulation by the government is “beyond overdue” and that the government is “not doing any testing at all.”


     It’s not just Rangan’s boss who has an agenda when it comes to the food industry. Far from being a dispassionate scientist, Rangan has a bone to pick with the food industry. In a March 2005 interview with the online environmentalist magazine Grist, Rangan was asked what “one environmental reform” she could “institute by fiat” if she had the power.


    In her answer, Rangan complained about the “economics in this country” being “all about the bottom line.” The director of the Consumer Union’s Eco-Labeling Project added that “each hamburger sucks up a half-gallon of gasoline” and that chickens are fed arsenic to get them “fatter faster.” Rangan suggested “tax incentives for companies and people who make better environmental choices.”


    While arsenic is administered in chicken feed, it’s not merely to plump up a bird. It also helps to ward off bacterial infection, Virginia Tech’s Susan Trulove noted in an Oct. 10, 2005, item for that university’s news service.


     Of course, Rangan is neither a veterinarian nor bacteriologist. According to the Consumers Union Web site she holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in Environmental Health Science and a bachelor’s in chemistry from Boston University.


     In contrast to Alfonsi’s brief, unbalanced report, USA Today’s Weise turned to experts at both the U.S. government and the National Chicken Council (NCC) for comment on the Consumer Reports study.


     NCC’s Richard Lobb told Weise that the numbers Consumer Reports released are “greatly exaggerated.” “That’s 500 samples out of 9 billion chickens slaughtered a year,” Lobb complained.


    Weise also noted that the Consumer Reports numbers are wildly different from previous studies conducted by the government. For example, “A 2005 study by the USDA and National Chicken Council found only 26% of 4,200 broiler carcasses tested were infected.”