Palaces For The People
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Activists Win An Organic Apology

Organic industry leaders were mad when the ABC newsmagazine "20/20" offered a report in February that made organic food appear to be unsafe. They were livid when John Stossel's report was rebroadcast in July.

And while Stossel has apparently delighted in offending those he reports on, he's never had to apologize for a report, until now.

During his regular Friday night report "Give me a break" on Aug. 11, Stossel apologized for claiming that organic and conventional foods have the same amount of residual pesticides: none. He also said that he shouldn't have said organic food is unsafe.

ABC went further, suspending the producer of the reports for a month without pay. Perhaps most noteworthy was the coverage of the report. Both times it aired, the report that organic may be unsafe went largely unnoticed by the rest of the mainstream media. The apology, however, was written up by national newspapers and was covered by other television networks. Even the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting called the report, "the latest in a troubling series of errors and distortions in Stossel's reporting."

"I think it's great," said Brenda Church of Fresh Air, a natural products store in Lynchburg, Va. "I know I was delighted when I heard he was going to retract the statement. I think it definitely will affect our business."

It was apparently a willingness to check out some original sources that helped the activists force the apology.

The report was familiar to the organic industry even before it came on the air in February. The main source for the story was Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute, author of the book Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic. Avery's institute is funded by such corporations as DuPont and Monsanto. Avery has claimed for years that organic produce is deadly. His writings are usually limited to conservative magazines and Web sites. (See a rebuttal to his main points from the Organic Trade Association in NFM October and November, 1999.)

After the first report aired, the Environmental Working Group decided to check out the claims made by Stossel. The group contacted scientists who conducted the tests Stossel said showed no difference between organic and conventionally grown produce. The scientists told an investigator for the group that while chicken was tested for pesticide residue, no such test was ever done on produce. (The chicken tests showed pesticide residue in non-organic poultry, and none in organic. Those results were not mentioned by Stossel.)

The group contacted ABC and demanded a correction, but got no response. Then ABC rebroadcast the report, and the Washington, D.C., environmental activist organization launched a public campaign trying to discredit the report. The New York Times, in a media column, made a brief mention of the group's claims. After that ABC News officials decided to investigate.

Meanwhile the OTA, which knew the first report was coming because Executive Director Katherine DiMatteo had been interviewed by Stossel, had been campaigning loudly since before the first report went on the air. During the original reports, Stossel contradicted what portions of the DiMatteo interview he broadcast, claiming that there is a greater chance of eating produce with "dangerous" E. coli if the produce is organic.

During his apology on Aug. 11, however, he acknowledged the OTA's campaign message that organic food is safe. "I want to make it clear that I agree. America's food supply—conventional and organic—is remarkably safe."

The apology was a first—and was compared by at least one media critic to Peter Arnett's career-crippling admission that CNN flubbed a report claiming American forces used nerve gas on their own troops in Laos in 1970. Still, the groups calling for the apology say the suspension of the producer and Stossel's words didn't go far enough.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said the apology "utterly fails to correct the reckless and false statements ABC News has repeatedly made, with no basis in fact, about the safety of organic food." He said he would continue to push for Stossel's firing, and for a correction during "sweeps" week when the report first aired.

Cook also produced a letter from a USDA official saying that even part of Stossel's apology was wrong. Stossel said ABC tested for E. coli, and found some on organic produce. The OTA had been claiming that a test for any E. coli would be misleading because the bacteria is present everywhere and it's only the pathogenic E. coli bugs that are worrisome.

During his apology, Stossel acknowledged the complaint of the OTA and the Environmental Working Group, but discounted it. "Well, it's true that this test was for all kinds of E. coli," Stossel said. "But government and other experts we spoke to confirm that this is a standard test for contamination of food because the presence of E. coli on produce is an indicator for fecal contamination."

That's not so, according to the letter produced by Cook. "Most E. coli are harmless," wrote Robert L. Epstein, acting deputy administrator for science and technology programs at the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. The test used "does not distinguish between pathogenic and non-pathogenic strains, and therefore cannot definitively identify a sample as containing bacteria harmful to human health," Epstein wrote.

DiMatteo also said the apology didn't go far enough, and said the OTA is exploring the possibility of bringing a lawsuit against Stossel and ABC.

Even Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, weighed in on the controversy. The original sponsor of the Organic Foods Production Act said, "The handling of this story has been careless and destructive. Thank goodness for the persistence of the Environmental Working Group in exposing it."

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