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USDA sides with EWG on E. coli

For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, September 6, 2000

Washington, Aug. 11--The food poisoning test that ABC News Correspondent John Stossel used to allege that organic food "could kill you" cannot definitively prove any risk of food poisoning, according to a letter issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture today.

The letter, from a top USDA scientist, further undermines the credibility of a story on organic food safety by Stossel just hours before he is scheduled to apologize for errors in his report on ABC's "20/20" Friday.

Earlier this week, ABC News admitted that pesticide tests Stossel cited in his story had not been conducted at all. The Environmental Working Group and the Organic Trade Association have also criticized Stossel's use of bacteria tests. The USDA letter supports their criticisms.

Generic E. coli tests of the type conducted for the ABC News investigation on organic food "do not distinguish between pathogenic and non-pathogenic strains, and therefore cannot definitively identify a sample as containing bacteria harmful to human health," wrote Robert L. Epstein, a scientist who is Acting Deputy Administrator for Science and Technology Programs at USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

"Generic E.coli tests can be used as an indicator of overall sanitation, for example in a food processing facility, but cannot alone determine whether pathogenic bacteria are present in a given sample," Epstein wrote.

ABC News conducted only a generic test for E. coli on organic and conventional foods. It did not conduct tests that can detect specific strains that cause food poisoning. "Most E. coli are harmless," wrote Epstein.

USDA issued its letter in response to a letter from Kenneth Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

"The world already knows John Stossel fabricated pesticide tests," said Cook. "This USDA statement makes clear that he also severely distorted bacteria test results in claiming organic food could kill people from food poisoning," said Cook.

"By any standard of journalistic conduct, John Stossel deserves to be fired, not slapped on the wrist as ABC News has announced," Cook said. ABC News stated earlier this week that Stossel has been "reprimanded" without describing the punishment. Stossel's producer for the show, David Fitzpatrick, reportedly has been suspended without pay for 30 days.

ABC News aired the mistaken organic report on February 4. Despite warnings the report was in error, the story aired again last month.

Both the EWG and USDA letters are posted at www.ewg.org.

The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D. C. EWG's investigation of the ABC News report brought its misuse of laboratory studies to light.