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 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 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 encourag
es 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
In those cases that do occur in produce, the E. coli generally
enters the food chain at the packaging and handling stage, not the
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
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.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle