An ABC Reporter Riles the Organic Farm Movement
August 23, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
BRIDGE NEWS August 18, 2000
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--John Stossel gave us a powerful journalistic expose of the organic food mythology on ABC's "20/20" in February. Last Friday night he apologized to viewers for a misstatement related to his inquiry into organic foods.
Newspapers all over the country had published an organic industry charge that Stossel was deceiving the American public. Ironically, the organic press release was distributed by Fenton Communications, which a few years ago gave us the "Alar on apples" hoax that had mothers snatching healthful apples out of their children's lunchboxes for fear of the pesticide.
What was Stossel's mistake? He said ABC had tested organic and mainstream vegetables and had found no pesticide residue 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, ABC tested mainstream and organic foods to see if organic farmers' use of manure was putting its consumers at greater risk of bacterial infections.
Indeed, 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, says the OTA may sue Stossel for "damage to the organic industry."
Her case doesn't look very strong. First and foremost, Stossel told the exact truth about finding much more E. coli bacterial contamination on the organic vegetables. The organic supporters are saying ordinary E. coli is only a little dangerous, and nobody should worry unless they find the more-virulent 0:157 strain, which can kill even healthy people or leave them with permanent damage to internal organs.
But, as Lester Crawford said on the "20/20" segment, health authorities consider any E. coli in food to be a pathogen, a health hazard and an indication of filth and contamination. Crawford is the former head of food safety inspection for the Food and Drug Administration.
DiMatteo herself made the statements most damaging to the organic industry. When Stossel asked her if organic foods were more nutritious than regular foods, she said organic was "as nutritious as any other product." What a radical admission, from an industry that had claimed for decades that modern food is a pallid, malnourishing shadow of the "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 she said this because Crawford was on the program and would have exposed as false the usual organic claims of extra nutrients. He knows many comparative tests of organic and regular food have been done over the decades and have discerned no consistent difference.
So DiMatteo was forced to tell the truth on national television. Now she's demanding ABC destroy all tapes of the program. No wonder. Stossel also asked DiMatteo if organic food was safer. Again, she felt forced to tell the truth. "Organic agriculture is not particularly a food safety claim," she admitted.
Organic means only that the farmers use organic fertilizer instead of chemical fertilizer and "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 we're being exposed to less than 1 percent of the "allowable" amount of pesticide residue, which has safety factors of over a thousandfold built in.
Meanwhile, Bruce Ames, recently awarded the National Science Medal by President Clinton, says 99.9 percent of the pesticides we ingest are natural, produced in the plants to fend off pests. So much for organic food being pesticide-free.
The uproar about Stossel's misstated footnote is because organic food is the icon on which the entire environmental movement is based. Without the myth that organic farming gives us more nutritious foods, the average consumer would worry about paying so much more for it.
Without the false idea that organic food is safer for people, parents might worry about their children's food being fertilized with pathogen-laden animal manure.
Without the propaganda about pesticides endangering wildlife, city folks might realize that without high-yield farming, we'd already have plowed down every square mile of forest on the planet to feed ourselves.
The conclusion that must be drawn is the organic and environmental movements want Stossel punished so no other reporters will dare uncover the organic myth.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.