The Washington Post and msnbc.com this week are publishing a major national investigation into food safety in America, conducted by student journalists from five universities participating in the national Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

Twenty-seven News21 fellows from Arizona State University, University of Maryland, University of Missouri, University of Nebraska and Harvard University collaborated to produce the project, which examines food safety issues through in-depth stories, photos, video, graphics and interactive databases.

The stories being published by The Washington Post this week detail the widespread incidence and many causes of foodborne illness in the United States and show how a combination of industry practices and gaps in government oversight leaves consumers vulnerable. Earlier, the Post published two breaking news stories from the News21 national project about food safety at farmers markets and a corporate challenge to the way federal and state governments investigate foodborne illness outbreaks.

Among the News21 stories featured on msnbc.com are an examination of the dangers posed by seafood, how less than 2 percent of imported food is inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at ports of entry and why food at farmers markets may not be as safe as consumers think.

The project also appears on the websites of News21 and the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

The News21 program, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, promotes in-depth, interactive and innovative investigative journalism at journalism schools across the country. It is headquartered at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Last year’s national News21 investigation on transportation safety, “Breakdown: Traveling Dangerously in America,” was featured in the Post and on the websites of msnbc.com and the Center for Public Integrity. It drew more than 5.2 million page views in its first 18 days – the largest distribution of university-produced journalism in history. The project was a finalist in the Online News Association investigative reporting contest in the professional category.

"News21 proves that top journalism schools and top teachers can produce journalism as good as any in America today," said Eric Newton, senior adviser to Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen. "News leaders and major news organizations agree – because they use News21's journalism."

Susan King, vice president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said the national News21 project “proves that deep learning about a topic and good digital story telling are a powerful combination. These students under the leadership of experienced professors have produced strong reporting about an important topic and done it with ingenuity and in innovative ways. Students have benefited, but so have readers and viewers.”

The 2011 food safety investigation’s findings included:

• Foodborne illnesses sicken one person in six – 48 million – in the United States each year. Of those, 128,000 require hospitalization and 3,000 die.

• The U.S. Food and Drug Administration anticipates that 24 million agency-regulated products will enter the United States in 2011, but it expects to inspect less than 2 percent of them.

• Nearly 3 million Americans are sickened by contaminated meat and poultry each year. Poultry carrying the salmonella pathogen is routinely sold to consumers with the expectation that they’ll protect themselves from infections.

• Even though small farms lobbied Congress successfully for an exemption from stringent new federal food safety regulations, there is no scientific evidence that their products are safer than those produced by large farms.

News21 students began this year's reporting project with a teleconferenced spring semester seminar tying together classes at ASU, Maryland and Nebraska. The students researched food safety issues and interviewed experts in the field. Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post and the Cronkite School's Weil Family Professor of Journalism, led the seminar from the Cronkite School and coordinated the program.

10-week investigation

Students selected for the summer reporting fellowship spent 10 weeks reporting and producing their projects, working out of newsrooms at ASU and Maryland.  Sharon Rosenhause, former managing editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, managed the newsroom in Arizona, while the Maryland newsroom was led by Deborah Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and senior lecturer at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, and fellow faculty members Sandy Banisky, former deputy managing editor at The Baltimore Sun, and Sean Mussenden, a director of the college’s Capital News Service.

Downie, who worked with students in both university newsrooms throughout the summer, said he was impressed with the student’s work. “They did a lot of very important original reporting, showed a great deal of initiative and accepted criticism from professional journalists,” he said.

Nelson added: “The program tapped and cultivated the innovative, investigative energy of some of the country's most talented journalism students. Those of us who had the chance to work with them can't help but be optimistic about the future of news.” 

Rosenhause said food safety proved to be an issue to which everyone could relate. “We shop, we cook, we eat out, but a lot of us don’t think about what goes into the decisions we make about food,” she said.

Cronkite student Nathan O’Neal relished the opportunity to do in-depth reporting. O’Neal and fellow Cronkite student Stephanie Snyder spent seven months on their story about an E. coli outbreak linked to spinach. 

In News21 “the story has time to evolve and the reporter has time to make it impactful,” O’Neal said.

Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism at the Cronkite School, assisted students with data gathering and analysis. Cronkite Associate Dean Kristin Gilger served as executive editor, and News21 National Director Jody Brannon was executive producer.

Other Carnegie and Knight recently renewed their commitment to News21 with $2.32 million in grants over the next 10 years. The next generation of the program will be modeled after the past two years’ multi-university investigative projects and will be open to students from any accredited journalism school in the U.S.  It will be based at the Cronkite School and directed by Bill Marimow, former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, managing editor and vice president of news at National Public Radio and editor of The Baltimore Sun.

The 2011 News21 fellows were:

• Rachel Albin, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

• Jeffrey Benzing, University of Maryland

• Kyle Bruggeman, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

• Maggie Clark, University of Maryland

• Alicia Cormie, Arizona State University

• Kerry Davis, University of Maryland

• Esther French, University of Maryland

• Nicole Gilbert, Arizona State University

• Judah Gross, University of Maryland

• Emily Hooper, University of Maryland

• Joanne Ingram, Arizona State University

• Mattea Kramer, Harvard University

• Max Levy, Arizona State University

• Teresa Lostroh, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

• Andrew Mach, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

• Andy Marso, University of Maryland

• Robynne McCullough, University of Maryland

• Tarryn Mento, Arizona State University

• Nathan O’Neal, Arizona State University

• Whitney Phillips, Arizona State University

• Brandon Quester, Arizona State University

• Brad Racino, University of Missouri

• Madhu Rajarman, University of Maryland

• Stephanie Snyder, Arizona State University

• Dustin Volz, Arizona State University

• Joe Yerardi, University of Missouri

• Maria Zilberman, University of Maryland