Dec 04 2018

Foodbabe Fails – Blames Astroturfing

Many people are complaining that CNN, in reporting on the recent E. coli outbreak on romaine lettuce, had The Food Babe (Vani Hari) on as a food “expert.” This, of course, is a complete journalistic failure on the part of CNN. The Food Babe is a famously scientifically illiterate alarmist whose career is based on peddling misinformation. My favorite example is when she completely misunderstood the nature of pressure in airline cabins, and complained that the air was tainted with up to 50% nitrogen.

As important as this complete scientific failure, was her response. She did not transparently correct the misinformation and apologize. She simply deleted the post.

Hari has come under extensive criticism for spouting her nonsense and fearmongering. She is perhaps most famous for her “yoga mat” stunt, completely misunderstanding the fact that chemicals can be used for a variety of reasons, and that does not make them dangerous.

Her general response to criticism is to (in addition to hiding) go on the attack. She does not appear to be an honest broker of information, but rather a self-promoter who will attack her critics. She also likes to ban critics from her own page. So when the internet complained to CNN that the Food Babe was not an appropriate person to have on their program to be presented as an expert, Hari did what she does – she went on the attack.

Her tactic this time is to blame the whole affair on “astroturfing.” This is a real phenomenon in which an industry, company, cult, or ideological group will create the impression of a grassroots campaign using front organizations and paid agents. However, this isn’t the whole story.

Cranks, charlatans, and even just lazy journalists have used accusations of astroturfing to fight back against legitimate criticism. This accusation is often directed as the skeptical movement.

Self-identified skeptics online, such as your truly, are mostly independent individuals just doing their thing. Skepticism is a truly grassroots movement, so much so that internally many complain that it’s not really a movement. At best we have have been compared to herding cats. There is no central organization, no coordination, no marching orders, and no campaigns that extend beyond single groups. At best we have some collaboration when important issues crop up, but these are ad hoc. We are mostly a social media phenomenon.

So it is hilarious to anyone involved enough to know what’s really happening to be accused of astroturfing. This is just another version of the shill gambit – dismissing legitimate or at least spontaneous criticism as if it is bought and paid for by a larger entity, such as a company or even entire industry.

To back up a bit – Hari and CNN were criticized for the claims she made on the show, which were misleading. One of her claims is that bagged lettuce is more risky than whole head lettuce and should be avoided:

Hari said. “Once your romaine is grown and harvested, it has so many different touch points of contamination possible. You know, that romaine is taken to one factory to get washed. Then another factory to get bagged, put into different bags of lettuce and then combined with other kinds of lettuce. And every single time it gets cut or washed it touches different machinery so there’s so many different points of contamination that can happen. And if we don’t know where our food is coming from, we can’t really trust it.”

This is a typical simplistic understanding for Hari, but it is not completely wrong. Rather, the issue is more complex and there is actually not enough evidence to have a solid consensus. It is true that the greater number of contact point provides more opportunities for contamination. But it is also true that bagged greens are easier to trace back to their source, and so it might actually be easier to avoid known contaminations. There is also no clear evidence that bagged lettuce is actually riskier.

This is why the FDA was not happy with CNNs reporting. Messaging to the public about health and safety needs to be carefully crafted, in order to avoid unintended consequences. Hari’s oversimplistic messaging might create a false sense of security around whole head lettuce. In fact the only thing that really matters is avoiding outbreaks when they occur.

Here are some standard recommendations from actual experts on how to approach bagged veggies:

– Buy bags of salad with most distant use-by date.
– Avoid bags with mushy or slimy leaves.
– Pass up bags that look swollen.
– Promptly refrigerate salad greens.
– Before eating, rinse the lettuce leaves well.

There is no need to avoid them entirely, and doing so won’t protect you from an outbreak.

Hari’s second main point was to blame the outbreak on antibiotics, because she is all about fear mongering about chemicals and anything artificial. But this is simply wrong on many levels. First, the current E. coli outbreak was of a strain that is not antibiotic resistant. Further, as the Farm Babe pointed out, antibiotic use is now carefully regulated in the industry.

Hari’s response was to say, well antibiotic use is still a problem, and touch points are still a problem, so I was right, nah! But she spends the majority of her time ranting about astroturfing, and Big Farm. She tries to make it seem like The Man is trying to silence her, so that her followers will band together like a beleaguered group of rebels.

Nope – it’s just regular people who care about the truth pointing out that you don’t, that you are misinformed, you are not an expert, and you have no business spouting nonsense on CNN.

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