Meat of the Matter: Shocked and flawed

There's journalism. Then there's sensationalism.

Unfortunately, as 21st century news consumers we get too much of the latter, and not nearly enough of the former.

Here's the difference: Journalism seeks to convey perspective, putting isolated events, political pronouncements and even scientific studies in context. Sensationalism, however, looks to slant information in ways that maximize shock value and titillate readers and viewers by spinning one slice of a story without regard to the backdrop against which all news unfolds.

Here's a great example of why so many people often appear misinformed, or just plain old ignorant about the science-based issues that affect our lifestyles, as well as our political and regulatory machinery. Take a single study that points to a problem, then dream up a headline — which is a far as most folks ever get — that turns it into A CRISIS!!

The study in question investigated the impact of low-level chemical residues found in treated sludge used as fertilizer on the reproductive status of sheep. A potentially serious concern? Certainly.

But here's the headline from Newsweek online:

"Eating Meat Grazed on Human Sewage Might Lower Female Fertility."

Wow. Where to start?

"Meat," of course, does not graze on anything. Animals do, and whatever impact exposure to environmental stimuli might have on their physiology isn't automatically transferred to people.

Second, livestock aren't dining on human sewage. That's is a deliberate twisting of reality to ratchet up the revulsion among readers. Yes, treated solids from wastewater treatment — known as sludge — is often processed into fertilizer typically applied to pastures, rather than row crops.

So yes, residues from processed sludge may be present on pastures grazed by livestock, but already that's a far cry from the implications of Newsweek's headline.

But the sensationalism didn't stop at the headline. Instead Newsweek doubled down on the fear factor:

"Human sewage is some of the cheapest fertilizer a farmer can find," the lead paragraph of the article stated. "It comes neatly packaged in pellets, which can be spread on fields to help grow the grass on which livestock will later graze. If you're a meat eater, it's probably best not to think about it. But if you're a meat eater who hopes to have children, new research suggests you (and regulators) might want to take a second look at the practice."

Implication: If you eat meat, you're probably sterile.

That is as irresponsible as news reporting gets.

Addressing the real problem

The study in question was conducted by Prof. Paul Fowler of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, along with lead author Dr. Richard Lea of the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham, and you know where that town's located.

The study ostensibly was designed to investigate the risks associated with grazing livestock on pastures fertilized with treated sewage sludge, which can contain residues of various chemicals present in virtually all municipal wastewater streams. The researchers switched a flock of sheep to sludge-fertilized fields in the last two to three months of the ewes' pregnancy, and as a result, the number of eggs present in the embryonic ovaries was reduced.

Yes, that's a concern, and as Dr. Lea noted, "Since low-level chemical exposure poses a threat to human reproductive development, the consumption of products from animals grazing such pastures may be of considerable environmental concern."

Here's the problem, which neither Newsweek nor a report on the study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science bothered to reference: What residues, and what levels of residues are we talking about? That's the key question.

If the sludge in the study contained excessive levels of dioxin, for example, that could be a serious risk to the sheep, and eventually to humans.

But the key data point, the one factual piece of evidence that makes all the difference, is totally absent from the story.

Here's an even more salient point also totally absent from the reporting: If chemical contamination of treated sewage — assuming that residue levels were excessive — impacted livestock, then the goal isn't to stop eating meat from animals who might have been grazed on sludge-treated pastures, if it were even possible to segregate meat products in that manner.

No, if this study's findings are credible, then the imperative is to minimize the presence of those chemicals before they ever reach a farm field.

That's the issue: Why are unacceptable levels of chemical toxins present in wastewater, even after it's been treated?

This study sheds zero light on that issue, and thus it's merely another sensationalized report taken out of context by researchers with as much of an appetite for publicity as the irresponsible news outlets that published their report.

That is wrong on so many levels, and it makes a mockery of the once-noble profession of journalism.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator