How John Stossel falsified evidence
the Truth About Organics San Francisco Chronicle,
Report on Organic Foods Is Challenged New York Times, July 2000
Food Fight The Nation, January 2002
the Truth About Organics
The San Francisco Chronicle
AUGUST 21, 2000,
BY Brian Halweil
I WATCHED IN DISBELIEF as John Stossel, co-anchor of ABC's "20/20,"
delivered a half-hearted apology August 11 for falsifying evidence in a
report that claimed organic produce is potentially more dangerous than food raised using toxic agrochemicals, antibiotics, added hormones,
genetically engineered seeds and massive animal-feeding factories.
In his apology, Stossel did admit that some tests he relied on to support his conclusion had never been conducted. But he shrugged that off as a minor oversight, maintaining that because organic farmers favor manure and other natural fertilizers over synthetic chemicals, organic produce carries a greater risk of E. coli infection and "could kill you."
What wasn't mentioned is that most of the manure spread on land in the
United States is, in fact, used by conventional farmers. The difference
is that organic farmers are the only ones required to farm in a way that might minimize the risk of E. coli or other food-borne illness. Organic
certification standards require that all raw manure is applied to the fields or orchards at least 60 days, and sometimes as many as 120 days, before the produce is harvested -- a period that allows for ecological processes that eliminate harmful microbes. (The pathogens become food for other soil organisms or degrade from exposure to the elements).
Conventional growers, in contrast, can spray on raw, uncomposted manure
(even on fruits and veggies that are but days from being harvested), in
addition to human sewage sludge and slurry from industrial animal farms -- all practices that are explicitly forbidden under organic regulations.
There has been no systematic analysis of whether organic or nonorganic
foods carry a greater risk of E. coli O157 -- the particular strain that
so deadly to humans and that we hear so much about in the news -- but the prevailing epidemiology of this bug points to the safety of organic over
conventional farming. Nearly all cases of E. coli 0157 result from consumption of contaminated meat, a function of the conditions of industrial factory farms and meat processing plants. For livestock that are used to eating mostly grass and straw, the feedlot diet of grain concentrate encourages the proliferation of E. coli 0157 in the animal's gut, while the highly confined and unsanitary conditions facilitate transmission of the bugs between animals. At the same time, overuse of antibiotics in the feedlot diet virtually ensures the potency of emerging microbes. Meanwhile, meat packing at breakneck speed, often in close proximity to animal carcasses and feces, paves the way for additional contamination.
In those cases that do occur in produce, the E. coli generally enters the food chain at the packaging and handling stage, not the farm environment.
Here are a few other things that weren't mentioned:
ABC's false claims relied almost exclusively on testimony of Dennis
Avery of the agribusiness-funded Hudson Institute, whose thoughts on pesticides
and food-borne illness have already been widely discredited. Last year, Avery manipulated data from the Centers for Disease Control in order to
back his claim that organic produce carries a greater risk of E. coli than nonorganic produce. CDC officials have stated that their data do not support Avery's claims -- a fact that might deter most journalists (even TV journalists) from relying on Avery as a source.
The report also played down the risk of pesticide residues, claiming
(with data that did not exist) that organic produce has no fewer pesticide
residues than nonorganic produce. In truth, organic produce -- from bananas
to peppers to strawberries -- has been consistently shown to carry fewer
toxic pesticide residues than nonorganic produce. Some of the more recent
evidence includes the January 1998 issue of Consumer Reports, which tested
1,000 pounds of organic and nonorganic produce, and found that organic produce consistently carried the lowest, and least-toxic, pesticide residues. (The fact that even foods grown without pesticides may contain trace pesticide residues is the unfortunate consequence of past pesticide use which has left background pesticide levels in the soil, water supply and even our bodies.)
Perhaps the most basic oversight of the report was the failure to mention that organic farming -- the fastest growing sector of the food economy -- offers tremendous hope for reconciling the toll that industrial, chemical-dependent farming has taken on rivers and streams, topsoil, wildlife and the environment in general. By relying on a sophisticated understanding of crop diversity, nutrient cycling, predator-prey interactions and other ecological processes occurring in the field, instead of chemical quick-fixes, organic farming provides a model for improving the way we currently grow most of our food.
The fabrication of information on an ABC news report -- not to mention
the neglect of extensive evidence disputing its conclusions -- raises serious
questions of journalistic integrity. According to Brill's Content magazine,
over the last two years, Stossel has collected hundreds of thousands of
dollars in speaking fees from various industry and conservative groups,
including agribusiness interests. At the very least, this gives the appearance
of a potential conflict of interest, and with the organic food market in
this country growing by more than 20 percent a year, there is no
shortage of groups who feel threatened -- agrochemical companies, biotech companies, and nonorganic food manufacturers and retailers.
"All we have in this business is our credibility -- your trust that we get it right, Stossel reminds the audience in his apology. Unfortunately, for his and ABC's reputation, this realization has come too late.
The writer is a staff researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington,
On Feb. 4, the ABC News correspondent John Stossel hosted a report on "20/20" that probably surprised many viewers. It made the case that organic food is not necessarily healthier than conventional food -- and might actually be dangerous.
Citing research he said was commissioned by ABC News, Mr. Stossel said that organic food seemed more likely than conventional food to be contaminated by E. coli bacteria. He also said that conventional produce does not necessarily have more pesticide residue than organic produce, contradicting one of organic food's primary selling points.
"Our tests, surprisingly, found no pesticide residue on the conventional samples or the organic," he said in the report.
But the two researchers who were commissioned to do the testing -- Dr. Michael Doyle, a scientist with the University of Georgia, and Dr. Lester Crawford, director of Georgetown University's Center for Food and Nutrition Policy -- said they never tested produce for pesticide residue for ABC. ABC executives are now looking into whether the statement about produce, a key premise on which Mr. Stossel built his case, was made without any basis in fact.
"All I agreed to do was test for indications of pathogens," Dr. Doyle said. "I didn't do tests for pesticides."
Dr. Crawford said that while he did not test produce for pesticides, he did test chicken -- and found residue on the samples of conventional poultry but not on samples of organic poultry. Those findings were not mentioned in Mr. Stossel's report.
The doctors' denials were first brought to light by the Environmental Working Group, which supports the consumption of organic produce. Members talked to the doctors after the report. In a letter to Mr. Stossel, the group asked for an explanation.
The producer of the segment, David W. Fitzpatrick, responded in a letter by saying that the pesticide tests were done and that the results had been forwarded to the Organic Trade Association, a group that spoke in defense of organic produce in the segment. The executive director of the association, Katherine T. DiMatteo, said Friday that the organization had not received results from any tests for pesticide residue on produce.
Despite being told by the environmentalists of the doctors' denials, ABC showed the report again on July 7. During an on-the-air conversation with Cynthia McFadden, a "20/20" anchorwoman, Mr. Stossel said, "It's logical to worry about pesticide residues, but in our tests, we found none on either organic or regular produce."
Last week, ABC News executives still could not address the questions
raised in February. They, at first said pesticide tests were performed
on produce by Dr. Crawford. Told that Dr. Crawford maintains he did not
do such testing, they later released a statement saying they would look
into the matter and "if a mistake was made, we will correct it." Mr. Stossel
had no comment and Mr. Fitzpatrick was on assignment in Africa and unavailable.
One of the most heavily quoted sources in John Stossel's "The Food You
Eat"--in which Stossel claimed that "buying organic could kill you"--was
an outspoken critic of organic farming named Dennis Avery. Stossel
introduced Avery as "a former researcher for the Agriculture
Department," but it was Avery's more recent position with the Center for
Global Food Issues, a project of the conservative Hudson Institute, that
informed his ardent support of chemical agriculture. The Hudson
Institute and Avery's project are both supported by generous
contributions from Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis, ConAgra, DowElanco, The
Olin Foundation and the Ag-Chem Equipment Company, all of whom profit
from the sale of products prohibited in organic production.
Avery maintained that organically grown food is no more nutritious than
conventional food (an unproven claim), that organic food had been found
contaminated with E. coli (a true but misleading allegation, as most E.
coli is harmless) and that pesticide residues had not been found on
organic or conventional produce, a finding, Stossel said, of studies
that had been contracted by ABC News to an independent laboratory.
After "The Food You Eat" aired, the network was inundated with angry
mail. Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade
Association, who was interviewed for the show, called the story
"distorted and inaccurate." Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group
in Washington offered hard evidence that the studies Stossel said had
been done on pesticide residues had never been performed. And Fairness
& Accuracy in Reporting, a New York media watchdog group, questioned
Dennis Avery's claims and credentials.
ABC vice president Kerry Marash, whose job includes watching for
infractions of editorial practice, invited critics in to present their
case. Marash declined to be interviewed, on the instructions of the
network's media relations director, but people who know her say she was
deeply disturbed by Stossel's handling of the organic food and farming
story, as well as other Stossel programs and that she wanted to talk
Subsequently, ABC announced that Stossel would offer a public apology,
live, on 20/20, involving aspects of the program. Stossel did
apologize--to his audience, but not to an industry he had badly damaged.
"I said our tests found no pesticide residues on either conventional or
organic produce," he said. "That was just wrong.... I apologize for the
error [and] am deeply sorry I misled you.... All we have in this
business is our credibility--your trust that we get it right--I will
make every effort to see that it never happens again." In a personal
letter to Katherine DiMatteo, Marash did apologize "to organic farmers."
David Fitzpatrick, the producer of the show, was eventually let go by
ABC in one of those severances shrouded in mutual secrecy. Fitzpatrick
did tell me that he received "a cash settlement," but not before signing
"a detailed nondisclosure agreement about the incident." Was Fitzpatrick
sacrificed? Many who knew him at ABC and remember the incident think so.
Stossel, they believe, was carefully positioned by network executives as
an unwitting victim of sloppy reporting by a subordinate. It was easier
and less expensive for ABC to buy off and silence a low-six-figure
producer than to cancel the contract of a million-dollar superstar.
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