Consumer Reports? No, Consumer Deceit

Beef on display in a Publix grocery store in Atlanta.
( Wyatt Bechtel )

You’re familiar with Consumer Reports. For years, the organization has styled itself—and has been accorded the title—as the premier watchdog providing everyday consumers with accurate, impartial evaluations of the products and services we all purchase.

Cars, appliances, electronics, drugs — Consumer Reports independently analyzes them all and then points people in the direction of the best buys, the most reliable choices, the greatest value for the big bucks we shell out for the products we buy.

At least that’s the pitch that’s contained in the promotional mailers from Consumer Reports that I seem to receive with the regularity of rainfall in the Pacific Northwest.

Here’s how they tee up their mission: “Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit member organization that works side by side with consumers for truth, transparency, and fairness in the marketplace. We use our rigorous research, consumer insights, journalism, and policy expertise to inform purchase decisions, improve the products and services that businesses deliver, and drive regulatory and fair competitive practices.”

Sounds great, right? And honestly, I’m all over their ratings when it comes time to get taken for a ride at some local car dealership when my current vehicle has become a magnet for four-figure repair bills.

The organization’s efforts to “inform purchase decisions” includes exposés of a slew of familiar products and services, including the following examples:

  • “Your doctor has a fancy degree hanging in his office, but some doctors include a stress test as part of a routine check-up. We’ll tell you what you should ask your doctor before you have a stress test.”
  • “You may think you can trust the ‘Made in America’ label, but some manufacturers use the label for products NOT entirely made in the U.S.”
  • “The Chevy Trax SUV might seem attractive for $26,000, but in our tests we found cramped quarters, underpowered engine and noisy cabins.”

See the pattern here? Pick a popular product or a familiar label and then quash its credibility, so that people now must rely on Consumer Reports to access the real facts only they possess.

But one of the areas that Consumer Reports claims as their area of expertise is food and food products. As their latest mailer urged potential subscribers, “Learn the ‘Hidden Truth’ about the food products you use every day.”

Complete Falsehoods
So what’s the hidden truth about food? Check out this incredible statement, one that I’m quoting word-for-word from their promotional piece:

“BEEF. Many people trust the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure that the beef they eat is safe. But the truth is … [that] USDA conducts periodic sampling for Salmonella and toxin-producing E. coli — but the beef processing plants are given notice at least a day in advance for inspections. That gives them a chance to make changes that improve their test results temporarily (italics theirs). That’s why we’ll tell you for optimal safety, buy beef with this label.”

What’s the label they’re recommending? Who knows? I’m more concerned with the truckload of lies they’re serving up as a teaser for people to shell out for a subscription.

For starters: USDA inspections, as Consumer Reports described them, are not conducted as microbial sampling sessions. Inspectors don’t show up at some plant, test kits in hand, and say, “Okay, where’s the beef? We need to run some tests.”

On-site inspections are about continuous oversight, about detecting and flagging physical defects, operational failures and/or animal handling violations. The assurance of food safety, i.e., the absence of salmonella or pathogenic E. coli, has been assured for nearly two decades now through implementation of verified microbial interventions at identified critical control points.

As everyone in the meat and poultry business understands, the facility- and product-specific HACCP plans that detail such strategies must be reviewed and approved by USDA personnel and periodically updated as science and technology advance collective knowledge about food safety.

Consumer Reports’ assertion that USDA can’t be trusted is, to be blunt, libelous.

Likewise, the idea that advance notice of inspections is routinely provided as a way for packers and processors to cheat the system by falsifying lab tests is monstrously inaccurate. It’s the kind of accusation that triggers legal liability resulting in lawsuits.

Here’s hoping someone in the beef industry follows up on exactly such recourse.

I’d love for the “hidden truth” about Consumer Reports’ outright fabrications to be aired in federal court.

That would be the kind of “insider information” that would actually provide consumers some real value.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.