- 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
- 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
- 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
- There has been no systematic analysis of whether organic
or nonorganic foods carry a greater risk of E. coli O157 -- the particular
strain that is 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, D.C.
- BioDemocracy and Organic Consumers Association 6114 Hwy
61, Little Marais, MN 55614, E-mail:<../staff.cfmStaff Activist or Media
Inquiries: (218) 226-4164, Fax: (218) 226-4157
- From Ken Adachi - Editor@educate-yourself.org
- Dear Jeff,
- It has been my observation that John Stossel, portrayed
on ABC's 20/20 as the untiring champion of consumer interests is an unmitigated
phony and disinformation con artist of the highest order. In his 20/20
"reports', he seems to do little else THAN deceive and misinform.
- How annoying it is, week after week, to observe this
man inform the public about one expose after another of consumer rip-offs
, when he himself is the biggest distortionist of all! ONE example only
from a nearly endless list of his imbecilic, on air, demonstrated "proofs"
concerning his contentions: In this case, he wanted to 'prove' to the
viewing audience that Boric Acid couldn't possibly work as a roach killer.
- According to him, gullible members of the consuming public
are being duped by con artists and charlatans if they think that Boric
Acid will stop a cockroach infestation. To 'prove' his statement, Stossel
sprinkles Boric Acid powder on a colony of roaches housed within an aquarium.
As the cockroaches continue to scurry around within the confines of the
aquarium, John triumphantly sputters: "There, nothing. I don't see
any effect at all. How can they call this a remedy for cockroaches?".
- Ah, Bravo. Case closed. John Stossel saves the American
consumer yet again. Roll the credits, it's a wrap.
- Sincerely, Ken Adachi (By the way, does anyone have
an air sickness bag handy?)
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