The cliché, usually attributed to Bismarck, who most likely never said it, has it that no one should watch laws or sausage being made. After a behind-the-scenes look at how a certain segment of the "Larry King Live" program was put together, the old adage seems to apply to television interviews as well.
On Friday afternoon, Oct. 9, Janet Riley, senior vice president for public affairs at the American Meat Institute, received a phone call from a staff member for CNN’s Larry King Live program asking if AMI president J. Patrick Boyle could participate in a panel discussion on the safety of U.S. beef to be broadcast live the following Monday evening. Producers’ interest in beef safety, especially with regard to E. coli O157:H7, was piqued by a long article published Oct. 2 in the New York Times that detailed lapses in safety protocols and testing, resulting in child deaths and at least one case of permanent paralysis.
"I could tell that this woman who called me was frenetic. I told her we would participate – we’d never done the King show before," Riley told MEATPOULTRY.com. "I also gave her some names of other people who might be good for the program, and later the woman called me back to say that Elsa Murano, who was one of those names, was great and was going to be on the show."
Riley also began compiling background information for the program and e-mailed it to her contact. She was disconcerted, however, to learn on Monday afternoon that the staff member had apparently not even looked at the material Riley had sent. Meanwhile, Boyle was in Indiana.
"He had to drive to Chicago from where he was in Indiana. That afternoon, though, the show called me and said they wanted to get him to L.A. (where the program originates)," Riley said. "I said, Look, you’re asking a lot – he can’t just drop everything and run to L.A. He’ll be at the CNN studio in Chicago as we agreed." Once he reached Chicago, Boyle was briefed by AMI staff just a few hours ahead of broadcast time on background information as well as on what to expect during the program. "Once he was in the studio," Riley said, "he was on his own."
The beef segment of the hour-long show lasted about a half-hour, and was divided, more or less, into three segments: an introduction that included Boyle, E. coli victims attorney Bill Marler, and the families of two victims of E. coli poisoning; a middle portion that, a little oddly for a program ostensibly devoted to beef safety, focused on whether beef should be part of the diet; and a third, concluding segment that returned the discussion to beef safety and brought back Boyle, Marler and the families.
When given his opportunity, Boyle patiently explained how the rate of adulteration of meat by E. coli has declined significantly in recent years and that the industry had spent "hundreds of millions of dollars" on technologies to improve the safety of its products. Later, after a couple of other program guests had stated that "factory farming" of livestock is to blame for a host of food-safety as well as environmental problems, Boyle added: "The whole comment about factory farming, from my perspective, that's a negative reference to high volume, low cost, efficient meat and poultry processing facilities, that give Americans an abundant variety of safe and wholesome products at a very reasonable price. The lowest price in terms of disposable income spent in any developed country in the world."
A caller asked why the U.S. doesn’t test 100 percent of its cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, as is done in Japan. "Excellent question," responded the AMI president. "We do extensive testing here in the United States for BSE. We have been looking for BSE since the early 1990s. It took us well over a decade to find one in Washington state. And that cow happened to walk across the border from Canada. Since we found that first one, we’ve done extensive testing. But we target our tests. We target it on the high-risk animals. Basically, older animals in our cattle population. The nature of the BSE disease is that it does not evidence itself until about five or a six-year period. So it doesn't make any sense, like Japan, for example, to test animals of all ages. You’re not going to find it unless you look at the high-risk population of cattle. And that’s what we've done very successfully here in the United States."
"If you think watching his show can occasionally be a long hour, sitting mic’ed in front of the camera on a live TV show makes the duration of those 60 minutes seem very long indeed," Boyle wrote later to MEATPOULTRY.com in an e-mail. "While I frequently disagreed with the points of views of other guests – and was at times even outraged by some of the unfounded accusations – I thought Larry King treated me fairly, especially near the end, by providing me with some extended opportunities – rather than abbreviated sound bites – to respond to some of the criticisms and inaccuracies." Indeed, at the conclusion to the beef portion of the hour Boyle was able to point out that AMI had successfully petitioned USDA five years ago for the industry to use one of the most effective technologies to rid meat of live E. coli cells, irradiation, but was still waiting for the Department to promulgate enabling regulations.
The experience impressed Boyle in another way. "I was also struck by the technological complexity of producing a show with 10 guests in nearly a half-dozen different locations around the country," he wrote to MEATPOULTRY.com. "So too was Larry King, who at one point during a commercial break told his D.C.-based producer that interviewing five people in a ‘five minute block of time’ was just too many."
Riley said it’s probably impossible for a representative of the industry to "win" in these kinds of staged debates. Photographs of children who had died from complications of E. coli poisoning, several of which were shown at the start of the King show, immediately put the industry on the defensive. "But it’s our job to jump in front of the bus," she said. "Situations like these are not going to be perfect. But you can’t let perfection be the enemy of the good."