Good News Is Not News

The most recent massive E. coli-related recall — Freshway Foods’ lettuce contamination — has food safety once again in the news. Whenever a major (or minor) food safety disaster occurs, the industry grumbling begins: “How come you don’t hear about the facilities that are doing things right? Or the millions of pounds of safe food that arrived in stores this week?” Well, because, “Hey, guys, this system functioned as designed, thus nothing newsworthy happened,” is not news. We all know that “no news is good news,” but it’s also important to note that “good news is not news,” too.

And, hey, speaking of: how come no one ever talks about all the oil rigs that didn’t explode, kill eleven people and then coat the gulf coast in sludge? Those rigs are all over the place… The BP disaster that’s been rightly dominating headlines for weeks should serve as a reminder to everybody that nothing — no industry, no hiccup, no disaster or system or oil spill or careless action — exists in a vacuum. Every action undertaken (or not) has rippling effects throughout industry and beyond. Economists, of course, like to call the unintended consequences heaped on those outside a given system “externalities.” But when not couched in such language, most of us just refer to these things as “somebody else’s problem.”

Nobody poisons lettuce on purpose, and nobody blows up an oil rig for fun. But all industries exist in a complicated and interdependent capitalist ecosystem — not to mention the real, actual ecosystem — and neither awards “best effort points” for only accidentally causing the largest oil spill in human history.

The food industry is poised perfectly to understand this from both sides. When a bunch of lazy reporters label a new epidemic “swine flu,” hog producers all over the country immediately see profits plummet. Every time a giant oil conglomerate blows up an offshore oil rig (on accident!), entire segments of the nation’s fishing economy simultaneously go belly-up. Ah, well, such is the way with externalities.

Here’s the other thing, though: every time some guy stuffing lettuce into a box fails to wash it thoroughly, restaurants have to throw away food and temporarily shut their doors. Sometimes thirty-three people are poisoned. And dozens, if not hundreds, of college kids fire off melodramatic letters to the editor, which (I’m sure), somebody somewhere has to read.

And while we're talking about far-reaching consequences, it's important to note that everyone is really crabby about this oil spill, and everyone is going to keep being really crabby for a while whenever they see industry-types acting in any way that could be perceived as irresponsible. The BP oil spill may more sharply focus public attention on all resource-heavy industries and their effects on the environment as well as the general population. And the public may be less likely to forgive simple accidents.

What do you think? Has your buisness seen fallout from the oil spill? Let me know: