Accuracy in Media

Business Insider commits that journalistic sin of rewriting a press release – churnalism – without bothering to analyze the claims it makes.

The claims are being made about the lead contents of certain foods sold at Trader Joe’s – dangerous, according to Business Insider — but the mistake is their misunderstanding what the FDA’s allowable limits are. The important thing is that they are not the levels at which the contamination becomes dangerous, not at all.

But that’s the impression that Business Insider leaves us with.

The report is about a lawsuit that has been filed on the lead levels in certain Trader Joe’s foods. Those levels are reported accurately by Business Insider – or at least the allegations are. It’s these descriptions that are incorrect: “with dangerous levels of lead,” and “contain enough lead per serving to affect reproductive health and development.”

The obvious implication is that levels near or above the FDA guidelines are physically dangerous, which is to be ignorant of how the FDA sets those guidelines.

This is true of near all pollution guidelines. The authorities want us to be safe. So, the level that is dangerous is calculated as best this can be done. Then the guideline level is set well below this. Because, obviously, we’d prefer everyone to be safe and to have much less than the not safe amount of the pollutant.

With lead the FDA guidelines are set as: “These levels allow for differences across human populations and are set nearly ten-times less than the actual amount of lead intake from food that would be required to reach the CDC’s blood reference level.”

CDC tells us how much would actually be dangerous. The FDA then sets the guideline levels which, as here with lead, are one tenth of the CDC levels. That is, reaching the FDA guideline level is not “dangerous”. It’s still only 10% of the level we think might be the borderline to becoming dangerous.

Business Insider is the No. 17 media outlet by some measures. It gains 100 million or so website visits per month. This is a major media outlet providing information to millions upon tens of millions. They have a duty to get their facts and details correct.

Misleading people about the danger levels of pollutants in food is not getting those details right. Actually informing people would be to tell them that the guidelines themselves are set far, far, below the levels which might actually be dangerous.

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