News21 student journalist Tarryn Mento
The current listeriosis outbreak linked to tainted cantaloupe is the worst foodborne illness outbreak since 1998 - linked to 21 deaths in 11 states and an additional 109 infections in 24 states, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found.
Although the current listeriosis outbreak began in July, the issue of bacteria and food safety is an ongoing problem.
Tarryn Mento and Brandon Quester, National Project Fellows at the News21 program at Arizona State University, spent several months researching the implications of food safety and traveled to Guatemala to investigate the site of a farm allegedly at the center of an earlier cantaloupe outbreak that caused 20 people to fall ill, including three who ate salmonella-tainted melons at an Oregon church dinner in February.
Their efforts resulted in the article “Salmonella Outbreak Traced to Cantaloupes in Guatemala.” The piece raises significant questions about how foodborne illness and outbreaks are investigated in the U.S. - and the steps authorities may or may not be taking to prevent them from occurring.
News21’s research has informed the mainstream media’s coverage of food safety over the past several weeks, with MSNBC.com and the Washington Post publishing News21's reporting.
Mento and Quester recently answered questions about their experience researching the cantaloupe outbreak and the larger context of how News21 is preparing the next generation of investigative journalists.
Q: Each year, students in the News21 program study a topic in-depth during a spring seminar and follow it up with a 10-week reporting fellowship during the summer. This year, the topic was food safety. What was the overall process of investigating food safety like?
B.Q: What we found in doing our research is that there is a massive influx of foreign food being imported into the U.S., which unfortunately is being inspected at a rate of less than two percent. The News21 program allowed us to document that story and frame the context of where your food is coming from and how safe it is. As we progressed throughout late summer and early fall, we realized that we had in-depth reporting that nobody else in the country had; that elevated our ability to tell the story.
T.M: Beyond investigating the issue of food safety, the project really allowed us to gain a full understanding, from the beginning to end, as to how the investigation process works for journalists. For example, the information we gained over the phone prior to our trip to Guatemela was not as in-depth as being able to be down there and actually talking to people. The trip itself was hugely beneficial in that way. It also showed that we were taking the story seriously as journalists.
Q: As your project on food safety and the cantaloupe outbreak developed, what did you find most surprising?
B.Q: What surprised me was how the overall system of food safety works. In the beginning, it didn’t appear too problematic, but all it took was a little bit of good reporting to find what turned out to be a great story. Through our research, we were able to point to broader implications in food safety, including the struggle of the Food and Drug Administration to regulate imported food.
T.M: As the investigation progressed, I was simply shocked at the amount of steps it takes to get food from a farm in Guatemala to a household in the U.S. The exchange of hands that food goes through to get from one place to another is incredibly more complicated than anything I had ever imagined.