OTA: ABC planned apology does not go far enough

For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, September 6, 2000

GREENFIELD, Mass. (Aug. 8, 2000)–The Organic Trade Association (OTA) today said ABC News’ intentions to announce a brief token apology on Friday’s 20/20 falls far short of what the network must do to make amends to the organic industry.

"ABC blatantly used unfair and untruthful tactics to attack organic agriculture in a 20/20 broadcast originally aired Feb. 4 and re-aired July 7. The 20/20 report was inaccurate, irresponsible, and deceived the public. ABC’s planned apology does not begin to cover the damages the show caused to the reputation of the organic industry," said Katherine DiMatteo, OTA’s executive director, adding, "Reputable news shows should be above such deplorable behavior."

"ABC should apologize publicly and in writing to the Organic Trade Association and to all organic farmers for its gross mishandling of this issue," said Katherine DiMatteo, OTA executive director. "ABC also must take further steps to redress our grievances. OTA is prepared to take the steps necessary to protect the organic industry, and is working with a team of legal experts from the firm Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton L.L.P."

DiMatteo said, at minimum, ABC News and John Stossel should:

  • air full retractions of its Feb. 4 and July 7 story about organic agriculture on 20/20, both during "Sweep’s" week and during the summer (to balance the presentations of the erroneous shows).
  • Immediately withdraw archive files on the story, and post corrected information on ABC 20/20’s web site.
  • Agree never to redistribute or rebroadcast the erroneous story, including on all of its affiliates.

OTA is currently analyzing the full transcript of DiMatteo’s taped interview with ABC News reporter John Stossel, and is convinced it will show this was a calculated intentional attack on organic agriculture.

Late Monday, ABC released a brief statement saying that 20/20 reporter John Stossel would only admit that his utterance that "tests done at the request of ABC News had shown there was no pesticide residue on either organic or conventional produce" was wrong because no tests actually had been conducted on produce.

However, as the recent report released July 31 by the Environmental Working Group revealed, the 20/20 show also distorted information to claim that "organic produce could kill consumers." ABC based this on laboratory analyses it commissioned for bacteria on conventional and organic produce. The tests that were conducted only detected the presence of generic E-coli. In reality, such tests do not justify claims of the presence of pathogens. The majority of E. coli strains are not pathogenic, and are commonly found in the gut of humans and warm-blooded animals.

A white paper on the significance of E. coli on fresh produce, developed by the National Food Processors Association (and available on NFPA’s web site: www.nfpa-food.org by searching for "E. coli"), shows:

  • It is normal to find coliforms on fresh and minimally processed vegetables. Their presence in produce even in high numbers does not indicate that these products pose a health hazard.
  • Since thermotolerant coliforms and E. coli may reach the produce from multiple sources, their presence does not necessarily demonstrate (or indicate) direct fecal contamination.
  • Since there is no correlation between these organisms and pathogens, testing produce for coliforms or E. coli is an unreliable indicator that pathogens are present.

Three months before the February broadcast, OTA had written to 20/20’s executive producer to warn him that Stossel was misrepresenting the facts during his interview with DiMatteo. When the show aired in February, OTA pointed out that the program erroneously implied that organic produce was more likely to cause food-borne illness. 20/20 did not respond to OTA’s letters.

"This show has caused significant damage to the reputation of the organic industry. ABC must make amends. The public has the right to know the truth–that the claims 20/20 made against organic were unfounded. Instead, certified organic agricultural production builds healthy soil and a healthy environment, and certified organic food has been a safe choice in the marketplace for the last 20 years."

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