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Give Us a Fake

How ABC News Fabricated One Lab Study and Distorted Another To Debunk Organic Food

Tuesday, August 1, 2000

Give Us a Fake

How ABC News Fabricated One Lab Study and Distorted Another To Debunk Organic Food

View and download the full report here: Give Us A Fake

On Friday, February 4, 2000, ABC News’ highly rated magazine program 20/20 broadcast a devastating investigation that created uproar in the rapidly growing, $6 billion organic food industry.

“The Food You Eat—Organic Foods May Not Be As Healthy As You Think,” as the segment was entitled, was introduced by ABC News Anchor Barbara Walters as a “special and surprising report” by correspondent John Stossel, a departure from his trademark ‘Give Me A Break’ contrarian commentaries that are a fixture on 20/20.1

Based on the evidence presented, the millions who watched the original broadcast might well have answered Walters’ questions in the affirmative. After viewing the segment, Walters said she might “cry.” The ABC News investigation seemed to offer compelling proof that millions of consumers were very wrong, indeed, about the benefits of organic food. Even more consumers saw the program when ABC News re-aired Stossel’s investigation on 20/20 on July 7, or in the somewhat condensed form the news division distributed July 11 for use by its affiliates, through ABC World News Now.

Taken on its face, Stossel’s hard-hitting story showed that organic food, far from being safer or healthier, was no different with respect to pesticide contamination than regular food, because neither one had any pesticide residues. Buying organic to avoid pesticides, the show conveyed, was a waste of money.

And when it came to the bacteria that cause food poisoning, 20/20 viewers might have been shocked to hear the show report that organic food is actually more dangerous than “regular” food. At the story’s dramatic high point, Stossel held up a bag of organic lettuce and confronted the head of the organic industry’s trade association: “Shouldn’t we do a warning that says this stuff could kill you and buying organic could kill you?” he demanded.

In contrast to Stossel’s scornful treatment of the organic industry representative, 20/20 featured on-camera interviews with Dennis Avery, a conservative writer whose controversial alarms about organic food formed the framework of the story, and two university-affiliated scientists in the field of food safety: Dr. Michael Doyle of the University of Georgia, and Dr. Lester Crawford of Georgetown University. Brief “man on the street” style interviews with enthusiastic organic food shoppers were woven throughout the piece. The shoppers expressed views about the health and safety of organic food that Stossel or his experts then roundly debunked. To bolster the shopper interviews, Stossel announced that 20/20 “did a poll on organic foods” to further contrast popularly held views with the contrarian facts and expertise he marshaled.2 The dire health risks posed by organic food were underscored by a brief but poignant recounting of the tragic food poisoning of a three-year-old girl, Haley Bernstein. The cause, Stossel said, was organic lettuce.3

What gave “The Food You Eat” its exceptional investigative heft, however, were the original laboratory tests that Stossel reported early in the broadcast. Specially commissioned and paid for by ABC News to compare the safety of organic and conventional food, the tests lent powerful scientific authority to a story that otherwise might have been just another televised duel between opposing experts.

ABC News’ own studies showed that neither organic nor regular produce had pesticide residues, Stossel reported. Likewise, the network’s lab studies turned up “the real bad news for organic consumers” that Stossel emphasized in the program: the risk of serious, even fatal food poisoning from bacteria-contaminated organic produce.

What made the ABC News lab studies even more significant and more central to his reporting was Stossel’s explanation that they were the first of their kind. “We searched the records and found there have been no tests done that actually compare bacteria counts in organic vs. normal food,” Stossel told 20/20 viewers. “So we did our own laboratory testing.”

In fact, the pesticide tests that Stossel claimed were conducted for ABC News to examine pesticides on produce—the results of which he reported on 20/20––were never conducted at all, according to the scientists the network hired to perform laboratory studies for Stossel’s investigation. ABC News broadcast the fabricated results four times in the course of airing Stossel’s investigation on three separate dates.

Laboratory analyses for bacterial contamination were conducted for ABC News. But according to the scientists who conducted and evaluated them for ABC News, those tests were incapable of proving the food safety problems Stossel attributed to the results. Moreover, 20/ 20’s Executive Director Victor Neufeld was informed of this crucial shortcoming, and Stossel’s serious distortion of the test results, three months in advance of the original broadcast.

In this document, we review the use of ABC News’ laboratory evidence in the 20/20 report on organic food (See “EWG’s Investigation of 20/20”). Our investigation makes clear that the distinguished scientists hired by the network for the 20/20 story are in no way to blame for ABC News’ abuse of their work. From everything we have learned, Dr. Doyle of the University of Georgia and Dr. Crawford of Georgetown University conducted and communicated their work for ABC News in an accurate and straightforward manner. Moreover, they have been forthright in describing the tests they performed for ABC News and the limitations of those tests. For the lab analyses that actually were conducted on E. coli bacteria, both Dr. Doyle and Dr. Crawford have made clear that their interpretation of the findings differs dramatically from the very strong conclusions that ABC News reached and broadcast about the dangers of organic food. Their professionalism as scientists is in stark contrast to Stossel’s practice of journalism in this episode.

The Environmental Working Group is on record in support of organic food and farming as a means of reducing pesticide residues on food, a goal the U.S. government has embraced since the enactment of the landmark Food Quality Protection act of 1996. Nevertheless, organic agriculture surely deserves a greater measure of scrutiny than it has received to date from scientists, the government, public interest groups, and journalists, particularly now that organic production methods are beginning to play a more important role in the U.S. food system.4 In a sense, the ABC News investigation was a missed opportunity to examine some very legitimate issues about organic food.

When the journalistic abuses 20/20 committed are taken into account, however, almost nothing of substance remains of ABC News’ sweeping indictment of the health and safety of organic food.

What does remain is a stunning example of journalistic fraud. Left uncorrected, the 20/20 story has the potential to do significant and lasting damage to the organic food industry, which depends on the integrity of its production claims to maintain its appeals to consumers. The fabrication and distortion of laboratory studies constitute impermissible violations of journalistic ethics and conduct on behalf of John Stossel and ABC News. Those abuses, the focus of this review, deserve a full public airing, and justify strong corrective actions on the part of ABC News.

View and download the full report here: Give Us A Fake

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