Networks on Overblown Tomato Scare: Oops!

     So apparently tomatoes are not the cause of the recent salmonella outbreak, according to the Food and Drug Administration. But the announcement did not come until after a widespread – and largely media-driven – “red scare” that cost the industry more than $100 million.

     And network news shows, while ignoring their own role in the tomato scare, are already setting their sights on the next potential culprit: peppers.

     On ABC’s “Good Morning America” July 18, host Deborah Roberts declared “tomatoes are safe to eat again. The government has now lifted its salmonella warning following that nationwide outbreak. But hot peppers are not in the clear yet.”

     CBS correspondent Kelly Cobiella also reported on the change in salmonella suspects on “The Early Show” July 18. “It’s exactly what tomato growers wanted to hear. The FDA announced Thursday that all tomatoes are safe to eat. The FDA isn’t saying they were wrong to single out summer’s most popular produce as a potential salmonella source. Only that tomatoes that might have been tainted have cleared store shelves.”

     Despite the FDA’s efforts to minimize the damage to the tomato industry, Cobiella reported, “Tomato growers are furious with the federal government. They say the warnings have cost them $100 million and counting.”

     But the FDA is not the only one to blame for the pain the tomato industry has been feeling over the last few months. In the first four days of the scare – June 8 through June 12 – the three broadcast networks aired 20 stories hyping the salmonella outbreak and pointing the finger at tomatoes.

     The story continued to make headlines and receive mass coverage for weeks to come.

     Business & Media Institute Vice President Dan Gainor wrote in a June 18 commentary about the “paranoia” of the media. “This is standard stuff for the evening hype operations run by all three networks,” he wrote. “The avian flu scare hurt the poultry industry just two years ago. The U.S. nuclear industry has never recovered from media coverage.”

     To add insult to injury, CNN’s Lou Dobbs and other protectionists used the scare as an opportunity to criticize imported foods and slam the government for not dedicating more taxpayer money to monitoring growers

     But a month into the scare the FDA announced tomatoes were not, in fact, dangerous. The numbers of people sick with salmonella are dropping off, according to Cobiella. “No one has come forward with salmonella St. Paul since July 4,” she added.

     But after seeing how media overreaction hurt the tomato industry significantly, viewers might expect journalists learned their lesson about panicking over foods that may be safe.

     The networks are showing no signs of that, however. “Raw jalapeno peppers and serrano peppers are the new bad guys. Investigators still can’t rule out where the contamination began at a farm, a market, or at some distribution point in between,” said Cobiella.