Last week, the non-profit journalism venture where I serve as editor, the Food & Environment Reporting Network, rolled out its second story on a little known livestock drug called ractopamine that has caused more illnesses or deaths than any other livestock drug on the market.
Fed to animals right up to slaughter, traces of the drug have been found in meat, although not at levels the FDA is worried about. But questions about the drug from foreign trade partners concerned about the health effects of the drug have percolated into a trade spat, with the European Union and China, among others, banning the use of the substance. That, in turn, has cut into US exports of meat produced with the drug.
This was just the sort of story our organization was invented to report. First, because hardly anyone outside the livestock industry had heard of it; second, because its use was so widespread in 60-80% of pigs in the U.S. (and also in cattle and turkeys); and third because it was the subject of an international controversy.
This was a months-long investigation, involving documents from the FDA that our reporter -- Helena Bottemiller -- obtained under Freedom of Information Act Requests. Among the documents were the numerous files from the FDA of animal illnesses related to the drug. When I asked to look over these reports, Bottemiller said the combined file was too big to send as an email attachment.
While the story first appeared on msnbc.com, it got picked up on blogs and in papers as far away as Taiwan. Here's a sample of the coverage as summerized in our blog over at the fern.org.
The story has been recommended by a number of other news sources, including The New York Times and CNN, and has inspired reporting in Mother Jones, Grist, Huffington Post, SF Weekly, theTaipei Times and Food Safety News. Reporter Helena Bottemiller appeared on New York Public Radio to discuss the story on Thursday. And we’ve had a good showing via social media: The story has generated 184 comments, been recommended on Facebook over 1,000 times, and shared 971 times through other sources. We’ve had some high profile tweeters share our news, including @RuthReichl (a member of our editorial board); Rep. @LouiseSlaughter, a microbiologist who has authored a bill that ends the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture; and @SlowFoodUSA. In addition, @ProPublica’s #muckreads highlighted the story on its Web site and on Slate.
In the future, FERN will produce more stories to the same high journalistic standards. To remain in the loop, get on our email list over at thefern.org.
- Samuel Fromartz