Rotting Meat, Security Documents, and Corporal Punishment: A Local Chicago Investigative Reporter Uses Shoe-Leather Techniques and Digital Tools to Uncover Health and Safety Violations and Be Sure the News Is Widely Spread

By Savini, Dave | Nieman Reports, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Rotting Meat, Security Documents, and Corporal Punishment: A Local Chicago Investigative Reporter Uses Shoe-Leather Techniques and Digital Tools to Uncover Health and Safety Violations and Be Sure the News Is Widely Spread


Savini, Dave, Nieman Reports


On a hot summer day, a truck backs into a loading bay in Chicago's popular Fulton Street meat market. The truck's driver has no idea his every move is being captured on a small video camera. Thousands of pounds of pork, cases of yogurt, and crates filled with fruits and vegetables are loaded onto a truck that has no refrigeration. It's an illegal load. Outside temperatures reach nearly 90 degrees. The yogurt can spoil in the heat. The pork (whole pigs) is dripping blood and other moisture onto peppers and tomatoes, which is a serious violation of public health codes and can lead to cross contamination.

The contaminated load is about to be driven to a restaurant 100 miles away. Again, the driver has no idea he's being tailed by me. A CBS 2 photographer joins me during this trip. A producer back at the station is running the license plate, then crosschecking the name and address with business licenses in Wisconsin.

We learn it is a Mexican grocery store that doubles as a restaurant serving fresh meals in the popular vacation town of Delavan, Wisconsin. Every minute counts, so I begin calling information for the names of agencies that might be able to inspect this load based on my findings. I finally reach an inspector who agrees to meet me en route. He three-ways the call to local police and then gets them involved in a slow moving police chase as the truck driver tries to get away. The driver is eventually pulled over and allows the load to be inspected. Temperature readings are taken, the food is ordered destroyed, and numerous citations are issued. CBS 2 is thanked for keeping potentially hazardous meat, dairy and vegetables off the market. And a bigger story is developed on how the state of Illinois has only six inspectors available to examine the kinds of trucks used to ship food.

During this and other CBS 2 undercover investigations, I operate the camera and also am the reporter. I often shoot undercover video, and I've been doing so for the past decade. I usually start the surveillance projects on my own, figure out patterns, and then schedule a photographer to accompany me. Knowing what to expect helps cut down on wasted overtime; having a camera handy just makes sense in case something important happens. Maximizing resources are a must, since the days of coming up empty on a shoot are over.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

We also try to maximize the impact of our stories by expanding their scope. Here are two examples:

* Knowing we have a great example of an illegal food shipment, we then cultivate sources. Meat inspectors give us tips with the promise of confidentiality about other shortfalls with food inspection agencies.

* We learn no inspectors are sent to check large shipments of refrigerated meat after the trucks hauling it sustain damage in crashes. I begin staking out key roads where truck drivers often hit viaducts, in some cases ripping the tops of their refrigerated trailers and exposing frozen meat to sweltering heat. (Adulterated loads like these can be salvaged if an inspector can ensure food temperatures do not slip into the danger zone of 40 or more degrees.) We find two major loads compromised by heat with no inspectors notified. The loads are transferred to new trailers, refrozen and shipped days later to wholesalers who had no idea the boxes of meat were tainted.

Prepare to Get Dirty

On a freezing, snowy Chicago night, a worker at a company hired to clean airplanes at O'Hare International Airport throws a clear plastic bag of documents into a garbage dumpster. Once again I am doing the video surveillance. This time I also jump into the dumpster and load my car with bags of confidential files left in the trash. I continue to visit this dumpster for two months gathering sensitive and confidential files including airport employee applications, Social Security numbers, and their FBI fingerprint check forms. The Social Security numbers enabled us to do background checks on workers to determine how many had criminal records. …

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