The Press Council has upheld a complaint by the Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand about an article published by the Sunday Star-Times claiming a link between eating undercooked chicken and contracting toxoplasmosis. The complaint is upheld on the grounds that the report lacked balance and the heading did not accurately convey the substance of the article.

On page 6 of its 30 July edition, the Sunday Star-Times ran a report with the headline, in quotation marks: ‘I gave my baby deadly parasite by eating undercooked chicken’. The article was an interview with a mother whose four-month old baby had contracted congenital toxoplasmosis from her in utero. The mother said she believed she herself had been infected with toxoplasmosis by eating a meal of butter chicken during her pregnancy and this had passed to her child.

The article quoted the child’s paediatrician on the incidence of congenital toxoplasmosis in New Zealand. As well, it quoted the grandmother, who warned of the potential risks to unborn children and said that her daughter had been strict about following health guidelines during her pregnancy.

The complaint
The Poultry Industry Association complained to the Sunday Star-Times editor on 31 July about the content and tone of the article. It asked if the headline was in fact a direct quote from the mother. In further correspondence with the newspaper, the Association wrote that the headline stated that the mother was convinced that chicken was the cause of the baby’s illness, but that the actual story conveyed only her fears and suspicions. The Association also wanted to discover whether the newspaper had sought comment from the Ministry of Health or from the New Zealand Food Safety Authority.

On 9 August, the Association complained to the Press Council on two grounds. It claimed that because the headline was presented as a quote, it left readers with the impression there was a clear and undisputable link between the baby’s illness and a chicken meal eaten by her mother during pregnancy. The Association said no confirmed link had been established and that the mother herself “suspects” and “believes” the chicken was responsible.

The second part of the Association’s complaint was that the article lacked balance, containing no comment from health and food safety authorities or, indeed, from the Poultry Industry Association.

The newspaper’s response
In response to the Association, the deputy editor of the Sunday Star-Times said the headline had paraphrased the mother’s words, was an accurate representation of the mother’s belief about the source of the infection and it accurately represented her horror that she had harmed her baby. At the time she contracted the infection, the mother had no contact with cats or cat faecal material and ate very little lamb or pork. Despite the mother being adamant in her belief that chicken had been source of the infection, the story had been edited to allow for the possibility of other causes; hence the use of the word “suspects” in the introduction. This did not make the headline incorrect.

The deputy editor said had the article set out to challenge the Ministry of Health’s provision of information on toxoplasmosis and its potential effect on babies, the Ministry would have been consulted for comment. It said comment was sought from the paediatrician, who confirmed the facts of the story and was well informed about toxoplasmosis in pregnancy.

On the question of accuracy, the newspaper said that far from causing widespread reader alarm, the story contained a public service message to readers to make sure their food was well cooked.

The Press Council finds that the headline: ‘I gave my baby deadly parasite by eating undercooked chicken’ is not a fair representation of the mother’s words as related in the article. It appears to be a direct quote from her, but on reading the story it is clear that she “suspects” and “believes” the chicken meal to be the source of the trouble. The newspaper edited the story to allow for other possible causes of toxoplasmosis, but did not apply that same caution to the headline. The headline allowed no room for doubt that chicken was to blame.

On the question of balance, if in the newspaper’s view it was providing a public service about the risks of undercooked meat, it would have been appropriate to seek comment from the New Zealand Food Safety Authority, Ministry of Health, or other public health officials for expert advice. The paediatrician restricts his comments to the incidence of toxoplasmosis and does not speculate about the source of the infection or offer any advice to pregnant women about how to avoid it. That speculation is left to the mother and the grandmother.
Despite the bold assertion of the headline that a chicken meal was the offender, the newspaper did not seek balancing comment from the Poultry Industry Association or poultry farmer, supplier or retailer. The strength of the claim made in the headline only served to draw attention to the lack of other, balancing views.
The Press Council upholds the complaint on both grounds.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, and Lynn Scott.


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