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R&IEditorial Archives2005April 1 — Viewpoint

Coming Clean

“Dateline’s” camera zoomed in for a tight shot, bringing into America’s living rooms graphic evidence of what the NBC news show described as poor food-safety practices in quick-service restaurants. To drive home its point, the program didn’t grab something from the usual bag of video horrors— a mosh pit of runaway roaches, a trail of mouse scat or a piece of meat moldering on the counter—to provide visual support for its premise: that as bacterial breeding grounds rife with health-code violations, fast-food restaurants are irresponsible instigators of foodborne illnesses.

In this case, the smoking gun was a puddle of water on a tile floor, perhaps tracked in on snowy boots or the lingering aftermath of a soda spill. While it represented a sanitation and public-safety issue that begged for quick cleanup, it did not look like early stages in the next Salmonella enteritidis outbreak.

Sensationalism and hyperbole, two dramatic devices used in “Dateline’s” Dirty Dining segment, which aired last month, probably helped stir the irritable response provoked within foodservice industry circles. Sensitive to the negative image such portrayals engender and mindful of the excellent efforts, training, education and investment that successfully have been applied to combat food-safety concerns, many operators bristle when the topic is publicly aired, especially in a way that seems to show bias toward one side of the story. They’re quick to point out that most experts agree foodborne illness is far likelier to come from home rather than restaurant meals; that America boasts the world’s safest food supply; and that as a percentage of restaurant meals consumed, the number of reported illnesses is quite small.

An industry responsible for the safety of each meal it sells is wrong to lament intense scrutiny.

Hidden-camera exposé programs have a whiff of yellow journalism about them, although the taint arises more from the journalistic approach than the subject matter. But an industry that is responsible for the safety and soundness of each meal it sells is wrong to lament such intense scrutiny. Food safety is a huge concern and a legitimate topic of keen interest to the millions of Americans who patronize restaurants each day. While it is admirably true that significant gains have been made, the case for rigorous food-safety standards and practices can never be stated too strongly.

Mary Adolf, vice president of the National Restaurant Association and the head of the NRA Educational Foundation, told viewers: “Any time there is a critical violation in a foodservice operation, it’s of concern ... to the industry because food safety is paramount. Food safety is nonnegotiable to every single operator in the foodservice universe.”

That’s the NRA’s position, and it’s one that should be held by the entire industry. One illness, one outbreak, one death is too many. If airing the unpleasant details in public serves as provocateur, goad and challenge, then bring it on.

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