Optima Pet Food Saga: Media’s double-edged sword

It’s been a crazy week – both with trying to catch up on work I let slip while caring for Addie over the holidays and also with trying to bring some perspective to this whole, ongoing, experience.

When all this began I created a Google Alert for “Optima dog food”, so I’d know any time the phrase appeared on Google’s news channel. For weeks there wasn’t a peep, but then suddenly (just after the Shanghai Daily piece) it lit up and I began receiving several notices a day.

Perhaps most prominently, the Associated Press picked up the story, and Elaine Kurtenbach (AP writer) chatted with me for some time about the situation and on what she had discovered about the supply chain (and its convolution):

(AP) … A sales person at Optima Co., the local representative for the product, said the dog food had been sent for analysis, but he would give no details.

“I’m not authorized to speak about this,” said the man, who gave only his surname, Zhang.

Ryan McLaughlin, a Canadian living in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, publicized the problem after his own 1-year-old golden retriever, Addie, fell sick after eating Optima dog food.

“When it’s an imported dog food, you don’t expect this sort of thing to happen,” Ryan, who comes from Welland, Canada, said in a phone interview. “Here we were paying the extra cash to try to ensure she was healthy and instead it made her sick,” he said. Addie died on Jan. 5.

Gu, of the local distributor, said only that his supplier was based in Taiwan.

Zhang said the product his company sold came from “somewhere in Australia.”

The AP article was picked up by a few other news sources, including the Canadian Press (CP), reprinted on CBC.

Here’s a partial aggregation of where the story was reported (those that include mention of Addie are noted):

It’s been an experience watching the coverage unfold. Seeing where certain news sources pull their information from. It’s a bit surprising to see how little actual journalism goes into it. Aside from one or two of the articles above, the rest are essentially re-writes based on information found online and/or from other news sources. 

That’s fine if the handful of reporters actually reporting have everything in order – but in most situations, they don’t. They can’t. In a case like this, especially in China, the ONLY people that are going to be co-operative are the victims, and they’re (we’re) generally relying on the media to uncover the truth.

And so you get CNN reporting that Optima dog food comes from Australia (it’s very definitely made in the USA), you get a lot of the reports (bordering on editorials) insinuating that it was fake dog food manufactured in China (it’s more likely that it’s real dog food, but illegally imported from Taiwan), and you get virtually every single one of them pointing out a connection to melamine-tainted Chinese-made dog food that killed dogs in the US in 2007 – then making the obvious jump to the melamine milk scandal of last fall.

Does it surprise anyone that when I close my eyes and think “modern media” I have visions of the Keystone Cops or a Benny Hill sketch playing out in my head?

Don’t get me wrong – news exposure is important and the media are purported to be the watchdogs of evil corporations and gov’ts who are looking to endlessly pull fast ones on the public.

But here’s the rub. The increased media exposure, and in turn pressure on local gov’t, has thrown the local distributor into chaos. Assuming it is the media calling for a one-liner or sound-bite, they are now dodging all calls, including those from those of us that have been affected by this situation and whom, until this week, had been receiving at least a decent amount of co-operation.

Maggie and I had a meeting planned with the distributor on Monday to discuss compensation, but when the Chinese media picked up the story they had to cancel, prioritizing their fires. This only worsened as the week went on and the story grew, until now we’ve been given the rather open-ended “we need to wait and see what happens”.

The distributor informs us that before they can reach a compensation deal with us (and allow us to put this whole tragedy behind us and move on), they need to wait and see if the government takes over the case. If so, it would virtually assure we’ll (a) never see a dime of compensation, (b) this will drag on for months and months, and (c) anyone responsible for this situation that can cut and run, will.

On the plus side, whether we see compensation or not, the increased exposure pretty much guarantees that the company responsible will be destroyed – as I doubt anyone would trust them again – which is a reward of sorts. But then, it just creates a void for another distributor to rise and take its place – one without the black-eye and still-tender reminder to not do something like this again.

Bah.

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