Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Dog and Pony Shows: Good Policy or Public Relations

Did you see this one:

Man caught urinating in reservoir, US city flushes 8 million gallons of water

The Portland reservoir. (AP)
Portland (Oregon):  Call it the big flush. Because a 21-year-old man was caught on a security camera urinating into a city reservoir, Oregon's biggest city is sending 8 million gallons of treated drinking water down the drain.
Portland officials defended the decision yesterday, saying they didn't want to send city residents water laced, however infinitesimally, with urine.
Public health officials say, however, that urine is sterile in healthy people and that the urine in the reservoir was so diluted perhaps a half pint in millions of gallons that it posed little risk.
Some people in the city, in the suburbs and around the world called the flush an overreaction, especially since animals such as ducks contribute waste routinely and, sometimes, die in the water.

Even so, Shaff said, the yuck factor was the primary reason for the decision to drain the 8 million gallons, at a cost of less than US $8,000 to treat it as sewage.
"Nobody wants to drink pee, and I don't want to deal with the 100 people who would be unhappy that I'm serving them pee in their water," he said. Shaff said the security cameras also showed something that's still unidentified was thrown in the water, heightening concern about potential risks.
City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who is in charge of the water bureau, defended the decision, citing a potential public health risk. He said he worried about the possibility of chlamydia or AIDS from blood in urine.
"I'm for taking the most conservative approach," he said.
The young man, Josh Seater, told KATU-TV he'd been drinking, was with friends and thought that the reservoir was a sewage treatment plant. He said he felt guilty instantly, and then security guards arrived.
Besides the sewage charge, Shaff said, the flushed water is worth US $28,000.

It was always very challenging to report on tiny little things (plant viruses for example) that had enormous  consequences for people.  PVYn for example was a virus who's only sin was that it killed tobacco plants (tobacco and potatoes are in the same solanacious family), but in the early '90's  it cost PEI potato growers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost markets, forced some farmers into bankruptcy,  hobbled the seed potato sector,  and lead to the quick expansion of the french fry business on PEI.   It was on a list of prohibited plant viruses in North America, mostly as a trade barrier to keep Dutch seed potatoes from competing here. It did have consequences for small tobacco growers in Kentucky, and other mid-eastern U.S. states who also grow potatoes, but the financial consequences for farmers far dwarfed the actual risk to anyone else. 

As a reporter you were faced with difficult decisions every day for months. All around you saw good people being hurt financially through no fault of their own, and your instincts were to be a "homer", to go to war to get the border open again, but that wasn't your job. You tried to get the best understanding of the science at play, and of course, the more serious issue of the politics at work. The Maine potato industry certainly used its political muscle (the Senate majority leader at the time was Maine's George Mitchell) to shut down PEI exports, and Canadian agriculture officials scrambled to find the right balance of good science, public relations, and political arm twisting to get the border open again. A mistake in the testing procedures by Agriculture Canada which made it appear that thousands of more acres of potatoes had PVYn than actually did, only added to the misery.  

The discovery of potato wart in a few potatoes harvested in New Annam a few years later  had similar consequences. Again there was no danger to people but the fungus was on a list of prohibited diseases and once it was reported, agriculture officials had little choice but again shutdown PEI exports to the U.S., and in this case, to other Canadian provinces who wanted to trade with the U.S. 

There were a few things I learned through these long and difficult stories:  
1. Testing is always a probability game, and results are determined by how hard an agency is prepared to look. Nothing is ever a 100% free of anything.

2. Agriculture officials and the media insist on talking about these issues in absolutes, the need to "eradicate" a certain disease, when in the real world nothing is ever absolute, the challenge is to get disease levels down to a level that they can't be found under the testing regime that's in play.

3. Canada never resolved these disease/trade fights through "cleaning up" the problem here, it always required testing U.S. produce coming into Canada, finding something wrong with it, and then negotiating a testing regime that both countries could live with.

4. The real security for  farmers on both sides of the border is the confidence the two regulatory agencies (in the U.S. and Canada) have in each other, which is pretty high right now.  This should prevent the need for demanding dramatic actions like border closures if something comes up.

5. Countries often take very extreme actions (think of the thousands of cattle slaughtered and incinerated  in England to control hoof and mouth disease, or tens of thousands of chickens killed in British Columbia because of H1N1) not because it's scientifically the right thing to do, but in order to maintain export markets (hence the dog and pony show). 

This isn't in any way to diminish the huge challenges facing food inspection agencies all over the world, and the consequences if they get it wrong. I am saying that good science and common sense are often in short supply during these crises, and the media of course plays its part.

Remember SARS in 2003, the serious pneumonia virus that started in Asia and spread quickly wherever world travelers went, including Toronto. Night after night we saw images of sick people in hospital beds, and masked and gowned family members and medical staff  doing everything they could to keep them alive.  The problem was these images represented just a tiny fraction of the people, and what was going on in Toronto at the time, but from what I heard from foreign visitors afterward, the impression left was all of Toronto, heck maybe all of Canada, was in serious jeopardy, which clearly wasn't the case. 

I have a theory that could be totally ridiculous, but what the hell.  Mad Cow was discovered in one Alberta cow just shortly after the SARS adventure. I thought the media handled the announcement really well, sober, factual, and I often wondered if there had been some reflection on how over the top the SARS story was covered, and some resolve to treat the next crisis a little differently.

Anyway the Portland Oregon water story is, in my opinion, just one more example of  taking extreme steps for public relations reasons, rather than common sense. Some city official pondered the potential headline:  "Portland Water Supply Put at Risk, and Officials Did Nothing"  and gave the order.. pull the plug.

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