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The Importance Of Reputable Sources | Serving Up Science

Karen and Brad Emerson
Flickr Creative Commons

Finding information online is easy, but finding the correct information is a bit harder. On this episode of Serving Up Science, science writer Sheril Kirshenbaum and WKAR's Karel Vega talk about reputable sources, especially in regards to the recent E. Coli outbreak in romaine lettuce. 


SHERIL KIRSHENBAUM: Karel when you have questions about diet and health, where do you get information?

KAREL VEGA: Well, I might start online - but not by blindly googling. I look for reputable sources and try to identify people with credentials in health, science or food safety - depending on the topic of course.

KIRSHENBAUM: That’s a good strategy - but unfortunately, the news media isn’t always as responsible. I’m sure you heard about the recent E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce.

NARRATOR: Don’t eat, serve or sell romaine lettuce. That urgent alert tonight from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes as it investigates a dangerous E. coli outbreak.

VEGA: That story was everywhere. Nearly the entire salad section at Meijer was bare when they pulled salad kits and other products containing romaine lettuce.And E. c oli infections are serious. According to the CDC, once ingested, people usually experience symptoms in 2–8 days, which often include severe cramping, stomach upset, vomiting and sometimes a fever. It can also lead to a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome.

KIRSHENBAUM: That can be very serious. So, it’s important that the news media it right. But sometimes, journalist don’t their homework and don’t find expert sources.

VEGA: Which is irresponsible and, frankly, lazy. Instead of helping inform consumers of a problem, the media can spread misinformation, which can make matters worse.

KIRSHENBAUM: And that’s exactly what happened late last year when CNN shared a story about how we can protect ourselves from E. coli.

VEGA: Who did they talk to?

Vani Hari
Credit Vani Hari
Vani Hari, also known as the Food Babe

KIRSHENBAUM:  A popular food blogger who goes by the Food Babe. Vani Hari is her name and she has managed to effectively rally a massive following against chemicals in commercial food products that she deems dangerous.

VEGA: And what’s her research based on?

KIRSHENBAUM: Rumor and fear-mongering. For example, not long ago she bullied Subway to stop including a chemical in their bread by comparing it to eating a yoga mat. And she memorably also pressured Kraft macaroni and cheese to remove the coloring additive yellow-5 from their products.

VEGA: And what are scientists saying about these chemicals?

KIRSHENBAUM: Both have been deemed by the Food and Drug Administration as safe for human consumption.

VEGA: But the self-titled Food Babe created a large public outcry…

KIRSHENBAUM: Which in turn, forced companies to change products for reasons that weren’t scientifically valid. 

VEGA: A blogger with a large following wields a lot of power and influence…

KIRSHENBAUM: And it’s not always as simple as substituting a color additive. Sometimes, turning to non-experts for advice can be dangerous.

VEGA: Which brings us back to E. coli.

KIRSHENBAUM: Yes, back to our lettuce problem. CNN didn’t speak to someone at the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They gave the Food Babe a platform to talk about food safety.

VEGA: And what did she have to say?

KIRSHENBAUM: Vani Hari advised consumers to buy whole heads of lettuce instead of the bagged or boxed types. Here’s her reasoning:

NARRATOR: So, you go for the head versus bagged. And that’s because it’s less processed?

HARI: Absolutely. And the touch points are definitely less. One of the things that we have a problem with in this country is we have things grown in one place and processed in another. 

VEGA: Which doesn’t really account for how this foodborne illness spreads.Sheril, as a scientist, what does bagged lettuce have to do with this story?

KIRSHENBAUM: The thing is, a head of lettuce might be contaminated with E. Coli before it ever reaches a box or bag. And she went on from there, also suggesting that antibiotics were responsible for the E. coli outbreak. 

VEGA: How so?

KIRSHENBAUM: She claimed that the overuse of antibiotics is creating superbugs that can't be treated with antibiotics.

VEGA: Now there are some valid reservations about the overuse of antibiotics...

KIRSHENBAUM: But the strain of E. coli in this outbreak doesn’t appear to be resistant to antibiotics, not to mention, antibiotics are not recommended for patients suffering from E. coli because it could potentially lead to kidney failure.

VEGA: That’s right. And while foodborne illnesses are indeed scary, the pathogens responsible aren’t related to new superbugs.They’ve likely existed for millions of years.

KIRSHENBAUM: Which is why it’s important to hold the news media accountable for not doing their homework and spreading false information.

VEGA: And why we’re talking about the importance of turning to food experts when it comes to topics like our safety and the science.

KIRSHENBAUM: And when you have questions before you start googling - consider calling or emailing an expert. Most are far more accessible than you may realize.

VEGA: Many scientists are eager to share what they know or point you to reliable resources for more information. Let’s share a few resources now.... What would you recommend Sheril?

KIRSHENBAUM: A good place to start with would be my colleagues at food.msu.edu where we cover a wide variety of topics. Or for concerns specific to health and food safety, try foodsafety.gov or cdc.gov.

VEGA: And feel free to email us with questions at kvega@wkar.org and sheril@msu.edu. We also should note that we did reach out to CNN to get their reasoning for putting the Food Babe on the air, but didn’t hear back. We’ll update you if we do.

KIRSHENBAUM: We’d also love to hear from listeners with topics ideas for future episodes.

VEGA:You’ve been listening to Serving Up Science the podcast about food, it s origins and effects on the planet.You can get more Serving Up Science at WKAR.org or wherever you get your podcasts.

KIRSHENBAUM: This series is produced in association with Food at MSU. I’m Sheril Kirshenbaum.

VEGA: And I’m Karel Vega and this is WKAR.

As managing editor, Karel Vega supervises news reporters and hosts of news programming, and is responsible for the planning and editing of WKAR's news content.
Serving Up Science host Sheril Kirshenbaum is a history buff, science writer, and curious foodie.
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