Stossel Under Attack
December 1, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
John Stossel gave us a powerful journalistic exposé of the organic food industry on ABC-TV’s 20/20 last February. In August, he apologized to the program’s viewers for a misstatement related to that inquiry. Newspapers all over the country had published the organic industry’s charge that Stossel had deceived the American public. Ironically, the industry’s press release was distributed by Fenton Communications, which a few years ago gave us the Alar hoax that had mothers snatching apples out of their children’s lunchboxes.
What was Stossel’s mistake? He said that ABC had tested organic and mainstream vegetables and found no pesticide residues on either. In fact, ABC hadn’t tested any vegetables for pesticides. But then, his program wasn’t about pesticides; it was about bacterial contamination. As Stossel reminded us in his apology, ABC had tested mainstream and organic foods to see whether organic farmers’ use of manure was putting its consumers at greater risk of bacterial infections. ABC found sharply higher levels of dangerous bacteria on the organic spring greens and sprouts than in their mainstream counterparts.
Katherine DiMatteo, head of the Organic Trade Association(OTA), said that the OTA may sue Stossel for "damage to the organic industry." Her case doesn’t look very strong. Stossel told the exact truth about finding much more e. coli bacterial contamination on the organic vegetables. The organic supporters are saying that ordinary e. coli is only a little dangerous, and nobody should worry unless they find the more-virulent O157 strain that can kill even healthy people or leave them with permanent damage to internal organs. But as Dr. Lester Crawford said on the 20/20 segment, health authorities consider any amount of e. coli in food a pathogen, a health hazard, and an indication of contamination. Crawford is the former head of food safety inspection for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
DiMatteo herself made the statements that were most damaging to the organic industry. When Stossel asked her whether organic foods were more nutritious than regular foods, she said, "It’s as nutritious as any other product." This was a radical admission from an industry that had claimed for decades that modern food is a pallid, malnourishing shadow of their natural and vigorously healthful organic product. When Stossel repeated his question, she repeated her answer: "It is as nutritious as any other product on the market." It must be assumed that she said this because Dr. Crawford was on the program and would have contradicted the organic producers’ oft-repeated claims of greater nutritiousness. Crawford knows that many comparative tests of organic and regular food have been done over the decades and have found no consistent difference. Hence, DiMatteo was forced to tell the truth on national TV.
Now, she’s demanding that ABC-TV destroy all tapes of the program. No wonder!
Stossel also asked DiMatteo whether organic food was safer than conventionally produced foods. Again, she felt forced to tell the truth. "Organic agriculture is not particularly a food safety claim," she admitted. Actually, organic means only that the farmers use organic fertilizer instead of chemical fertilizer, and they use "natural" pesticides such as copper sulfate (broadly toxic) and sulfur (a soil contaminant).
Even Stossel’s mistake—saying, "our tests surprisingly found no pesticide residue on the conventional samples or the organic"—would have been accurate if he had simply cited government data. The FDA finds no pesticide residues on about 70 percent of the unwashed vegetables it tests, and their market basket survey annually finds that we’re being exposed to less than 1 percent of the "allowable" amount of pesticide residue—which has safety factors of more than a thousandfold built in. Moreover, Dr. Bruce Ames, just awarded the National Science Medal by President Clinton, says that 99.9 percent of the pesticides we ingest are natural, produced in the plants to fend off pests. Organic food is as rife with pesticides as regular foods.
The uproar about Stossel’s misstated footnote came about because organic food is a darling of the environmental movement. If most consumers knew that organic food is neither more nutritious nor safer than conventional foods, few would bother to pay twice as much for it as for mainstream food. The obvious conclusion is that the organic food trade groups and their allies in the environmental movement want Stossel punished so that no other reporters will dare reveal the truth about organic food.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.