In Depth

A Banner Year for Recalls

Tainted Products Were Among Health Care’s Biggest Stories in 2007

Fifteen thousand pounds of sausage contaminated with Listeria, 21,000 packages of trail mix containing glass fragments, 326 million pounds of salmonella-infected peanut butter, 376,000 bottles of mineral water with arsenic.

From cantaloupes to ground beef, sesame tahini to parsley powder, frozen pot pies, organic baby cereal, toothpaste and mouthwash, the recalls of food products alone in 2007 were staggering.

That doesn’t include the health dangers from other products. Chinese-made toys with lead-based paint made the news, but 1.6 million Cub Scout badges also were recalled for excessive lead levels. Pharmaceutical drugs also had a rough year, as Chinese-made tainted heparin dominated headlines in recent months.

“2007 was over the top,” said Don Mays, senior director for product safety and technical public policy of Consumer Reports, which dubbed 2007 “the year of the recall.”

“There were a record number of recalls—473—by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, including 30 million toys recalled because of either lead paint or toxic chemicals or small magnets,” he said. “The FDA also had a series of problems with food contamination, and drug issues included the heparin issue and the massive recall of toothpaste with a type of antifreeze blended in.”

TV stations have responded in force. “We did a lot of coverage on the lead in toys coming from China,” said Debby Knox, medical reporter at WISH-TV in Indianapolis. “Our local health department tested the toys and local kids. That was huge, and I think it’ll continue to be huge as we get into the toy season in the fall.”

At NBC affiliate KNSD-TV in San Diego, medical reporter Peggy Pico said she has noticed more coverage of recalls in 2007. “It points to the fact that people are more concerned about their health,” she said. “There seems to be a mistrust of who’s regulating healthcare.”

At KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, medical reporter Dr. Maria Simbra also covers recalls. “We cover them because they’re highly promotable,” she said. “You can always put a commercial on ‘look what’s being removed from your supermarket shelves.’ You explain the problem and that’s that. It doesn’t usually go beyond a day or two as a story. I also try to explain the illness related to the recall and how it affects you and when to get help,” said Dr. Simbra, who listed veggie snacks, onions and spinach as recent recall stories. “One of the challenges in covering these is that by the time you’re told about the recall, the items have already been pulled from the shelves.”

TV stations also make good use of their online presence in covering recalls. At WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va., director of digital media Kelly Zuber said the station’s Web site has a prominent page devoted to health and works in concert with station health reporter Joy Sutton to fill the site with stories.

Recalls, she said, often are covered on the Web site’s consumer watch page. “It seems like every other day we’re doing a recall story,” she said. “We don’t have a separate page for recalls, but I think a specialty page is in our future, because people are so interested in that.”
Recall coverage does, however, have its pitfalls. Ms. Pico said she prefers not to cover these stories, which she calls “day of” stories. “I usually pass those off to a general assignment anchor or reporter,” she said. “I tend to think that recall stories are reactionary. How many kids have been sick from lead toys? I did the lead paint story, but I also went to a lead testing center to test the toys. And I got numerous letters from people who said they grew up with lead paint [and weren’t harmed].

“It’s very sensational,” Ms. Pico added. “But what are we really looking at within the health care implications?”

Independent health care journalist Andrew Holtz, who writes online newsletter the Holtz Report, agrees. “I would put recalls in with other kinds of crisis reporting,” he said. “It’s in the same vein as a meningitis outbreak at a local school. There’s always been that segment of health and medical coverage that responds to crises, and there always will be.

“Recalls in food and drugs have caught people’s attention, so it’s not surprising that reporters have caught on to it,” Mr. Holtz continued. “There’s a feedback loop. The more attention paid to the topic, the more instances get noticed. Then there’s more political pressure, so if new laws are proposed, that’s a reason for more coverage. It’ll die down after a while.”

Although stations are likely to respond to recalls with a crisis style of coverage, which is ideal for promoting the evening news, the questions behind recalls are bigger and deserve a different kind of attention that they rarely get.

Ms. Knox explained, “We have an investigative team that takes on stories [about] why regulatory agencies have failed. But the problem with local news is that if we have a story with manufacturers in China using paint with lead, how do we get inside China unless we have a big, big budget? That’s a special project, and the networks may have an easier time.”

A deeper look into the “whys” behind a recall is exactly what Gary Schwitzer, director of the health journalism master’s degree program at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communications, would like to see.

“Stories about recalls are low-hanging fruit,” he said. “But the bigger story is rarely told. Why do we have three recalls last month and four this month? Should we drop back and take a look at the regulatory and approval process?”

That’s exactly what the Consumers Union does. Mr. Mays noted that while imports have dramatically increased, federal regulatory capacity has shrunk. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has only 15 inspectors—half of the number of 30 years ago—who police the U.S.’s 300 ports. “Eighty percent of all toys sold in the United States are imported from China,” said Mr. Mays. “Thirteen percent of all food is imported and 83% of seafood. The FDA inspects less than 1% of all food imports entering the country.”

Drug approvals and recalls are even more complicated. “The FDA is under tremendous pressure to approve more and more drugs, and the only way they can keep up with the demand is to ask user feeds from the drug manufacturers,” said Mr. Schwitzer. “Device approval is even easier. The standard is that the new device has to be ’substantially equivalent’ to something already on the market. And new surgical approaches don’t undergo any federal approval.”

Mr. Mays noted the drug companies can make changes to a drug, notify the Food and Drug Administration and then release it into the market before the agency has a chance to do a re-approval of the reformulation.

Mr. Schwitzer said station news departments need to dig deeper into the regulatory issues behind the rise in recalls, but Mr. Mays said even coverage of individual recalls serves an important purpose.

“Most recall information doesn’t reach the consumer at all, and the government relies on the media to get the word out,” Mr. Mays explained. “But if you’re not watching TV at the right time, you miss that information, and that leaves consumers at risk.” He gave the example of last year’s recall of 1 million cribs that posed a strangulation hazard. “After six weeks, the company announced that they had a response of 45,000 people regarding the recall. That’s a 4.5% response rate and means that more than 950,000 cribs remain in the homes of consumers not aware of the problem.”

But for stations to dig deeper into the issues requires more than a bigger budget, said Mr. Mays. “The issues are complicated,” he said. “Unless it’s an hourlong newsmagazine show, like ‘Dateline’ or ‘20/20,’ you may not get the depth of coverage required to explain the complexities of the situation. It’s hard to fold it into the nightly news.”