This summer, the United States Department of Agriculture would like you to play it safe. The message: Keep that raw meat away from your fresh veggies. To spread the word, the agency has created a series of friendly video reminders. The stars: a chicken that acts like a dog, a pig talking it up in a sauna, and a lobster chilling on the couch.
As Gretchen Goetz writes, consumer food groups have been criticizing the ads for months. In a letter, a coalition of them slammed the ads as "a little too wacky and divorced from the basic behaviors we wish to communicate."
Going wacky isn't necessarily a bad tactic for reaching consumers. The ads' meat-centric stunts have a good chance of getting our attention—they've already got mine—and go a long way in making the deathly boring subject of food safety more entertaining. But for a message like "Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill" to become the new "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires," the agency might consider getting behind a more enduring spokes-animal. Imagine if Big Bird were laying his life on the line for clean cutting boards.
Whether you'd like to see Big Bird on the chopping block or not, the underlying message of the ads may prove to be even more problematic than the imagery. By suggesting that we can deal with the nation's food safety problems in the comforts of our own homes, the message distracts from another, more likely source of illnesses: eating out.
Michael Batz, an expert at the Emerging Pathogens Institute of the University of Florida in Gainesville, told me that one 2010 study estimated that about 70 percent of outbreaks can be traced to professional kitchens, although many illnesses connected to restaurants have their origins at farms or processing plants. In an email, Batz writes, "[The] USDA’s consumer advice is helpful and those following these rules will certainly reduce their risk, but it’s important to note that many foodborne risks are largely outside of consumers' control, whether we're talking about how food is prepared in a neighborhood restaurants or the practices of farmers halfway around the world."
Clearly, you alone cannot prevent food-borne illnesses. So let's hope a noisy chicken inspires us all to start making some noise for real reform, too.
Video: JWT New York via USDA