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Centre for Investigative Journalism
Annual Convention: Individual Reports


by Abrey Myers


"See if the arguments preached a few years ago are still used faithfully today."

Rita Jensen


THIS SESSION ON STORIES dealing with food and agriculture that the news media have not touched reads almost like a shopping list of potential headlines. Ellen Roseman is The Globe and Mail's consumer critic and the author of two books, Consumer Beware and Canadian Consumer Guide.

Roseman finds it difficult to locate good investigative pieces on food in the newspapers these days. Energy topics have forced them off urban front pages. If there is any mention of food, it can be found in the lifestyles section and, even then, the accent is on syndicated features about nutrition and recipes. But that doesn't mean the stories aren't out there.

The big story today is price spreads: what the wholesale price of an item is and what you are actually charged for it. Unless one goes undercover to find out the actual price mark-ups, the amounts will never be known. Wholesale prices are the food industry's best kept secret.

It is interesting to note that prices of commodities regulated by marketing boards have increased more slowly than most during the last decade. This gives marketing boards a good record, but their accountability towards the public should be investigated. How much do we know about their operations? How much is carried on in secret?

Another point: we don't have a strong lobby for anti-combines legislation. "Our legislations are among the weakest in the world," said Roseman.

Roseman believes that most papers ridicule too much the idea of testing additives on animals. "The real story is not being told: that there is good scientific basis for the way animal testing is done. We should try to show the other side, that biochemists do have a methodology for these studies." It is better, Roseman felt, to eliminate doubtful items than to let them circulate on the market.

One story that should be given more play is the move to put electronic scanners in retail grocer outlets. The change entails the removal of prices from products, lowering the consumer's awareness of cost. Electronic systems give the retailer the ability to change the price of an item after it is removed from the shelf and before it reaches the checkout counter!

André Charbonneau, freelancer, pointed out that journalists are often weak in history. The investigative technique in agricultural stories is to go back five to ten years and compare what was said in previous years to what is currently going on.

"Not just fact-finding commissions but also economic conferences four to five years ago. See what was said between federal and provincial governments, farmer's groups, co-ops, milk producers. See if the arguments reached a few years ago are still being used faithfully today."

As prices increase, politicians "let loose a lot of political fast talk" and reporters tend to be taken in. "They haven't done their homework, so it's much easier for the press to provide a conflict angle (e.g., comment from the local union on a Eugene Whelan statement)."

Charbonneau felt we should try to examine marketing boards. "If reporters don't understand them how will the public understand?" We should also be looking at agriculture in a North American context, comparing activities in the U.S., where the head offices of companies operating in Canada tend to be, to what's happening here. "Basically, when we look at a province, or even at Canada as a whole, we're not getting the whole picture."

Walter Stewart said he wrote Hard To Swallow in 1974 because he wasn't an expert on the subject and had discovered that no one else had touched it.

He  speculated  that,  consciously or unconsciously, news desks all over the country are not assigning or covering possible food stories. As an example, he cited an investigative team at the Toronto Star which did a massive study on retail prices and discovered that supermarket prices really didn't vary much, despite all  those sales and pitches for comparison shopping. The story was never printed  "and those of us (at the Star) had some dark suspicions."

Stewart thinks reporters with good ideas don't push hard enough for their stories and that our inbred cynicism is enough to kill the good ones already in production.

The marvellous thing about agricultural stories is that they can be done again and again. In 1979, Stewart did a piece on Canada Safeway, a supermarket chain in Alberta. "Canada Safeway bestrode the market like a Colossus and forced people out of business." The story was easy to do because there was a royal commission on food price spreads in western provinces, which exposed Safeway's role. Stewart secured corroborating evidence from people who were forced out of business and from notices of legal action.

After the story came out, Stewart said that Canada Safeway's comment, in effect, was, "We didn't do it, but we won't do it again." As far as he knows, Canada Safeway is still sitting there and still growing bigger.

"As Adam Smith puts it, chances are that when two companies get together, they are conspiring against the public."


Published in Sources May/June 1980


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