Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Too late late for press? That depends where you look

The Capital Press has the wrong deadline for reporting agriculture news to our print readers. I'm not sure what the right one is, but I know it's not the one we've got.

Today, minutes after all of our news pages were done and gone, a pretty big story broke. Korea lifted its ban on U.S. beef. That's an international story with economic and political ramifications. Korean citizens have been protesting about the issue, the South Korean government has been put into turmoil because of the protests. It's a pretty big deal here too, as it opens what has historically been one of the biggest export markets for U.S. beef. Having more consumers for U.S. beef could help cattle producers in this country, who have have been locked out of that market since 2003, and are now facing higher feed costs.

But because of that deadline, people who only read the ink-on-paper editions of Capital Press won't read that story when there paper gets to them in a few days.

As a news guy, that makes me a little crazy, especially since that last news page that went out today was a page I put together and it had two stories on it related to the turmoil over getting U.S. beef back into Korea. In a matter of a few minutes, one of those stories became outdated. Old news. It's enough to drive a newsman insane.

And it probably would have left me talking to myself and drooling on my shoes except for one thing. We posted that new news online and sent out a breaking news alert to people who have subscribed to our electronic newsletter even before the first splash of ink hit the newsprint for this week's edition.

I don't know how much readers think about things like deadlines, but I will share some insider information here, in case anyone is curious.

The Capital Press "publishes" every Friday. That's the day it is available at our newsstand locations and, ideally, reaches people's homes or offices. I say ideally, because the paper gets delivered to people's homes and offices via the U.S. Postal Service and the federal government does things on its own timeline, which means it isn't necessarily our timeline.

In order for us to have any shot at getting a mail-delivered paper to people on Friday means we have to get it in the mail early on Thursday. As most people may know who have ever placed a Classified ad with the paper, we accept classified ads up to noon on Wednesday. So we send our final pages to the press by 5 to 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

As luck would have it, a lot of the big ag news events happen after our print deadlines and still before the paper gets to most of our subscribers. Key announcement in federal or state policies affecting agriculture always seem to be made on a Thursday or a Friday. Several key votes or actions related to the farm bill over the last year have happened on Fridays or Thursdays.


Maddening, except for what people like you, readers of blogs and websites, already know. With the Internet, there are no deadlines. It's never too late to publish. There is no need to yell "stop the presses" because this medium is digital. It's not about ink and paper, it's about pixels and bandwidth. And it's about delivering news and information when the news is still new.

I recently celebrated my third anniversary at the Capital Press. Unfortunately, I have not made many blog posts here on our Blogriculture site. In fact all of us Capital Press bloggers have been blogging less than we may want to contribute here. But I hope we can be forgiven for being away. Things are changing. This blog was originally started as a means to report things in a different medium and a different way than we were doing in print or even online on our website. It's been a test plot to try new things. Some of the things and features that debuted here eventually moved to our main site.

Collectively, our time is being spent putting more energy and emphasis into our main site and our print product, including more emphasis on things like video. We have not been away because we are not committed to the web. To the contrary, we are dialing up our efforts to share agriculture news and information in new and different ways in a world were there are no deadlines and it's never too late to tell people more and give them new information.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tomato scare hurts farmers

As the nation once again tries to pinpoint the source of salmonella-tainted food, the agricultural industry in the West probably let out a collective sigh of relief that this time the problem did not originate here.

However, as investigations into the source of the problem continue, Western vegetable growers will remain cautious about how to better prevent this from happening here. They will also analyze how this latest scare with consumers will impact their upcoming sales season.

Fresh and processed tomatoes are worth more than $2 billion in annual farm cash receipts: Fresh-market tomatoes are grown in every state, and commercial production is in 20 states, according to the USDA.

California had the most to win — and lose — as the complicated investigation continues into what caused more than 227 people in 23 states to be sick by June 17, up almost 50 from a week earlier. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had first been alerted of people being ill from salmonella bacteria on May 30.

The challenge has been that people have gotten sick in restaurants as well as homes, and unlike packaged or canned fruits, vegetables or meats, tomatoes don’t have bar code labels and are often placed in big lots from several farms and suppliers. According to a Los Angeles Times story, this is the 13th time since 1990 that an outbreak of salmonella was traced to tomatoes.

The Times quoted Rep. John D. Ingell (D-Mich.) as criticizing FDA and the Bush administration for being so slow to act on FDA’s Food Protection Plan, introduced in November 2007 but which still hasn’t been fully implemented.

“We face yet another food crisis,” the Times quoted Ingell. “It has sickened people, devastated an entire industry and cost consumers, producers and retailers millions of dollars.”

Why was it so important for California to identify the source of the crisis?

California shares with Florida that distinction of being one of the top producers of fresh-market tomatoes, with each state producing 40,000 acres, and together they supply two-thirds to three-fourths of the total U.S. fresh-tomato acreage.

California is the top producer of all tomatoes, with 95 percent of the U.S. fresh processing and one third of the fresh market, reports USDA.

Meanwhile, imports of fresh tomatoes — mainly from Mexico — have grown to be one-third of the tomatoes consumed in the country. Imports increased as tomatoes have grown to be the fourth most-popular fresh-market vegetable.

While those searching for the cause of the salmonella were still searching this week and strongly suspected Mexico and the central and southern parts of Florida, there were fears the exact problem source may never be found.

As long as the sources of salmonella elude investigators, consumers may unfairly and irrationally remain nervous about buying all types of fresh-market tomatoes, no matter how and where they are grown, marketed or prepared for a meal.

Commissioner for Food and Drugs Andrew von Eschenbach in his online commentary last week said the FDA can do better in its programs of “prevention, intervention and response.” This included implementing programs under last November’s food protection plan. While he praised facilities such as the new Pacific Regional Lab Southwest in Los Angeles, for its major food-testing and research capabilities thanks to its “sophisticated scientific tools,” he also stressed the need for Congress to approve more FDA funding “so we can address these emerging new challenges and opportunities.”

Laboratories that rely on state funding also yearn to have more money budgeted this year to deal with food safety concerns.

The next few months will be critical as federal and state legislators decide priorities in preparing to fight future safety issues, and they are urged to ensure the tools and manpower are available to track down salmonella and other food dangers quicker.

Hopefully this latest tomato scare will help squeeze out more money before more problems happen and FDA is forced to play catch-up yet again as consumers’ physical health and farmers’ financial health suffer.

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