Give Me a Fake: Stossel Under Fire

John Stossel's Phony Report on Organic Food

Wednesday, August 2, 2000

Give Me a Fake: Stossel Under Fire

John Stossel's Phony Report on Organic Food

After six months of stone-walling, ABC News confirmed an Environmental Working Group (EWG) allegation that the network did not conduct pesticide tests for a special 20/20 investigation by correspondent John Stossel that was harshly critical of organic food. ABC has announced that the producer will be suspended for a month and Stossel 'reprimanded.'

That's not enough! Stossel lied and threatened an entire industry by disseminating false and damaging information. He should be fired for violating the most basic ethical standards of journalism.

EWG has now released fresh video evidence from the Organic Trade Association that Stossel aggressively asserted that organic food "can kill you" despite acknowledging he didn't have the scientific backing to say so. The network investigation is looking into EWG's allegations that Stossel seriously distorted lab research on bacterial contamination during the broadcast.

Since the pesticide test fabrication has been verified, the next phase of the investigation will deal with Stossel's false and reckless claim that the levels of E. coli bacteria found in organic produce were dangerous. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's fact sheet on E. coli, "A positive finding for E. coli does not indicate that the food tested presents a health hazard to consumers." Why? Because most strains of E. coli are benign ... E. coli is not in itself a cause of foodborne disease.


This is Food Safety 101. It is incomprehensible that a network reporter was incapable of such a basic level of research. Stossel's statement that "Shouldn't we do a warning that says this stuff could kill you, and buying organic could kill you?" was in deliberate ignorance and defiance of rudimentary facts about E. coli.

If ethical journalism is alive and well at ABC News, David Westin will fire John Stossel..


The Facts on E. coli

On the 20/20 broadcast, The Food You Eat: Organic Foods May Not Be As Healthy As Consumers Think, John Stossel slanders the organic food industry with unfounded accusations that organic food could kill the people who eat it. To quote Stossel from the show, holding a bag of organic spring mix:

"Shouldn't we do a warning that says this stuff could kill you, and buying organic could kill you."

The problem is that ABC did not do the tests needed to support this accusation. Indeed, the tests performed for the show are not even detailed enough to determine whether the bag of produce tested would make anyone sick, let alone kill someone. Extrapolating these limited test results from one product, spring mix, to the sweeping accusation that "buying organic could kill you" is even more reckless and dishonest.

ABC commissioned generic E. coli tests for five different types of vegetables. The generic E. coli test is an indicator of possible contamination with disease causing pathogenic E. coli. The generic E. coli test itself, however, provides no evidence that pathogenic E. coli is actually present on the food tested, nor does it mean that the food item tested presents a health hazard to people who eat it. This is very, very rudimentary food safety knowledge, and it is inconceivable to us that ABC's experts, producers and correspondents could have gone to broadcast ignorant of these facts.

To quote the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety Inspection Service, at 9 CFR Part 304, et al., Pathogen Reduction; Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems, Final Rule:

E. coli (except for certain pathogenic subgroups) is not itself a cause of foodborne disease. It is a "surrogate marker" or "indicator" for fecal contamination, which in turn is a source of many pathogens that may contaminate products. Fecal contamination, however, does not always correlate with the presence of pathogens; high levels of E. coli may be present without pathogens, and pathogens may be present without high E. coli levels (Federal Register, Vol. 61, No. 144, July 25, 1996, p. 38850). [Emphasis added, parenthesis and quotations in the original]

Because a positive result for generic E. coli says nothing definitive about the safety of the food tested, food that tests positive for generic E. coli can be sold in interstate commerce, with no restrictions.

In fact, USDA rules for pathogens allow numerous positive generic E. coli detections before the Food Safety Inspection Service takes action, and even then the action taken is not to recall adulterated food, rather it is to work with the slaughterhouse to improve the production process.

Under USDA rules, a slaughter establishment fails to meet acceptable performance criteria, if:

"...the results of one test are above M (an extremely high colony count of E. coli) or if 3 of 13 test results are above m (a positive result for E. coli) (p. 38841)." [Parentheses added, note that two E. coli positives out of 13 tests would trigger no action at all].

Failure to meet USDA criteria does not trigger action against the food that tested positive, because the food itself is not considered unsafe. Instead a violation leads to an inspection by the FSIS. Again, quoting USDA:

"A single failure to meet the criteria does not by itself demonstrate a lack of process control or product adulteration, but it will trigger greater inspection activity (p. 38843)."

Even repeated failure to meet the criteria does not necessarily lead to any action against the slaughter operation, but instead would "lend support" to the conclusion that withdrawal of inspection may be appropriate.

"Repeated failures to meet the criteria would lend support to a finding that the establishment's process controls are inadequate. Failure to maintain adequate process control will result in suspension and withdrawal of inspection, as appropriate. (p. 38844)."

In sum, USDA rules make clear that E. coli is not a cause of foodborne disease, and a positive finding in a generic E. coli test represents no food safety hazard. Because of this, the Food Safety Inspection Service allows multiple and repeated positive findings of generic E. coli in food with no regulatory action or food safety concern. Only when E. coli detections exceed 3 out of 13 consecutive samples, does the government initiate stepped-up inspection activities. And even then the food produced by the facility in question is not considered adulterated or a hazard to human health.

USDA's rules apply to meat, but the same scientific principles apply to generic E. coli, regardless of what food it is found on. The Food and Drug Administration has yet to propose rules for pathogen contamination in fruits and vegetables.

In support of the above, we attach a food safety fact sheet on E. coli from the National Food Processors Association, a major food industry trade organization. The first paragraph restates the facts quite clearly.


20/20 Interview with Katherine DiMatteo (10/18/1999)

John Stossel, ABC News "20/20"
Katherine DiMatteo, Executive Director, Organic Trade Association

Stossel: Tell me a little bit about your background.

DiMatteo: I am the Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association which is a business association of people involved in the organic agriculture and products industry. I have been at my job for about ten years. I started in 1990.

Stossel: All right. Thanks.

Stossel: This is only a small part of the overall food industry, but this is a big business.

DiMatteo: It's a growing business. It has grown rapidly over the last ten years, but we have been around for about twenty years and organic agriculture goes back probably to the turn of the century in terms of definition.

Stossel: And growing fast. How fast?

DiMatteo: About twenty percent a year in total dollars for each of the last seven or eight years. So we have gone from less than a billion dollars in 1992 to about five billion dollars in 1997.

Stossel: Now I don't think a lot of viewers know business. When you talk about twenty percent growth a year, that's a huge hit.

DiMatteo: It is, it is one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry.

Stossel: Of any industry right.

DiMatteo: I don't know. I am not sure.

Stossel: Well I don't have a computer handy. So why does it cost so much more.

DiMatteo: There are many reasons. Price plays an interesting factor in our economy. Part of the reasons have to do with where you are purchasing your food, the availability, the supply, the demand and right now organic is high demand, low supply industry. We have many more people who want to buy organic products then we have organic products available for people to buy.

Stossel: Take another shot on that.

DiMatteo: We have many more people available then we have products available for people to buy, and also we don't have products available in every location where people like to shop. So the price is somewhat dependent on the fact that it is a specialty item, or that is an unavailable item. Another factor is that we don't have efficiencies in transportation and distribution because of our size and nature of our industry. Other factors also include returning a fair wage to the farmer.

Stossel: Do you pay more to the farmer.

DiMatteo: Distributors, brokers, manufacturers &emdash; people who handle organic products that bring it from the farm to the customer &emdash; you pay a higher price to the _____. (muffled)

Stossel: ______, I don't understand that. Do you pay people more.

DiMatteo: Yes, farmers earn more money from organic agriculture then they do from other types of agriculture.

Stossel: Why?

DiMatteo: Because it is in demand and because we believe as an industry, not only should we have a sustainable environment, which is our goal, but also to have a sustainable farm system which means that farmers need to make a living off the farm.

Stossel: So people pay more, and what they get in return is supposed to be kinder to the environment.

DiMatteo: It is an agricultural production system that is done with the environment in mind. We try to emulate nature and uses methods and materials that don't have a negative impact on the environment.

Stossel: Is it more nutritious?

DiMatteo: It is as nutritious as any other product. Freshness is one of the key factors in this production system (not loud enough)

Stossel: Is it more nutritious?

DiMatteo: It is as nutritious as any other product on the market.

Stossel: You have seen our research.

DiMatteo: Yes, I have.

Stossel: Does it bother you?

DiMatteo: No, I find it interesting. I think that contamination by pathogens is a problem that faces everyone in the food industry whether it is conventionally grown products or whether it is organically grown products. It is a growing concern and think that we all have to work very hard to make sure that the food is delivered as safely as possible for the consumer and we need more research.

Stossel: You talk about - contamination is a problem with all foods true, but in our tests we found more pollution in organic food.

DiMatteo: You have found more samples of some pathogen contamination

Stossel: Take another shot.

DiMatteo: Sorry. You found more samples of some pathogen contaminations in some products. It is a very small sample. It is not a sample that would be scientifically valid. I think that even your analysis showed that it was marginal in the differences between conventional and organic agricultural. I think that more tests, longer tests, longer years of tested samples needs to be done so that everyone in the food industry, both conventional and organic can develop even more effective means of controlling pathogen contamination.

Stossel: It was not scientifically significant, you're right. It was a test of a hundred some samples, but the organics were twice as likely to have E. coli and had larger amounts.

DiMatteo: It was a snapshot sample at a given point and time and it was only the salad mix that actually showed up twice as likely. In all other cases that was not the percentage difference. Again your analysis should say it was a marginal, and I suspect that that's true, a snapshot at a different point in time may show a totally different samples.

Stossel: We should do another test.

DiMatteo: Yes, I expect that the Centers for Disease Control is probably beginning to do some tests on E. coli, particularly because they haven't been doing that in the past.

Stossel: The salad mix is this stuff.

DiMatteo: Yes.

Stossel: So maybe people shouldn't buy it.

DiMatteo: I think that people should wash all their produce no matter what it is after they purchase it from a grocery store.

Stossel: So maybe we shouldn't buy it.

DiMatteo: I think the wisest thing for people to do is to wash all of their products, all of their produce after they bring it home from the grocery store. The Food and Drug Administration has the safe food handling recommendations that they make called "fight back campaign." Their web site has a lot of hints and suggestions for people to ensure that when they get a product home that is handled properly and that they are ensuring their own safety after it leaves the grocery store.

Stossel: ___________ while we are here take an insert _____________ (muffled) take a ______ insurance ___________.

DiMatteo: ___________ (not loud enough)

Stossel: _____ actually ____ let's do a transition here. There seems to be even more problem with sprouts slightly.

DiMatteo: Yes, sprouts have become a very serious contamination problem both for organic and conventional.

Stossel: But the organic had more trouble.

DiMatteo: I don't believe your test results showed that. I think it was about equal.

Stossel: Okay, that's right. Okay. So both organic and non-organic.

DiMatteo: Right.

Stossel: So non-organic is just as clean, why pay for organic.

DiMatteo: Organic is an agricultural system that is concerned about the environment. What we do is eliminate the use of toxic, persistent pesticides and fertilizers in our production system and we follow all of the health and safety codes in regards to pathogens and contamination. Our difference is the type of production we do on the farm and in the processing plant.

Stossel: Now the FDA issued a warning about these.

DiMatteo: Yes.

Stossel: Sounds like the same issued warnings on raw oysters. Raw oyster and spouts.

DiMatteo: Ah ha.

Stossel: But when we went to organic food stores we didn't see any warning on these.

DiMatteo: I don't believe that they have to put warnings on your packaging. FDA made broad warning to all the public that they should be cautious, especially for those people with compromised immune systems or the elderly or young children.

Stossel: Question to

Fitzpatrick: I am puzzled by &emdash; if the sprouts are the same what is it saying here &emdash; these last three lines.

Fitzpatrick: The concentrations of E. coli are higher in the organics.

Stossel: Okay.

Stossel: That is what our tests shows. It is the concentrations of E. coli..

Stossel: On our tests there was twice as much E. coli in the organic sprouts as the stuff we bought at the super market.

DiMatteo: One of the things that conventional agriculture does in terms of handling practices is to use a very large amount of chlorine wash on sprouts. That's the recommendation of the International Sprout Association and it is.

Stossel: I have got to stop you ________________ (not loud enough).

Bell: Is it really true it was twice as much?

Fitzpatrick: The concentrations were yes.

Bell: Twice as much?

Fitzpatrick: Uh Huh. In many, yes. I showed you the data.

Bell: I didn't read that.

Stossel: In our test, the organic sprouts had twice the amount of.

Fitzpatrick: Concentration of E. coli was twice as high.

Stossel: The organic sprouts were badly contaminated with E. coli, twice the concentration of the stuff that we bought at the super market.

DiMatteo: I am not an E. coli expert. I can talk about what we do in organic farming practices and also in processing practices. The organic industry and the Organic Trade Association are seriously looking at whether or not we will be able to continue to certify some to organic practices because what we do _________ high concentration levels of E. coli, it is high concentration levels of chlorine wash.

Stossel: You wash it out with chlorinated water.

DiMatteo: Yes and you soak the seeds in chlorine.

Stossel: And you don't like to do that.

DiMatteo: Well we have some concerns about what the long-term effects of chlorine are going to be.

Stossel: But it cleans them up.

DiMatteo: Well it does, but sometimes not to the full extent that you would expect. As your tests also show that the conventional sprouts also had concentrations of E. coli.

Stossel: Shouldn't we do a warning that says this stuff could kill you and buying organic could kill you.

DiMatteo: I think that that would be impractical, unnecessary and unfair to either the spout industry, conventional or organic and to the organic industry. There is no conclusive test to say that either is going to kill you because of your production method. Now like I said before, I think there needs to be more research on pathogens contamination and effective means of controlling pathogen contamination. Recently there has been a number of imports that &emdash; it is a whole food system problem. It is a problem of contamination and making matters worse is that there is also resistance to antibiotics so that even if there is a problem, antibiotics don't works as effectively as they used to control the damage that can be done.

Stossel: So this is a scary problem.

DiMatteo: Contamination by pathogens is a very serious problem for all the food industry.

Stossel: Shouldn't we say this stuff can kill you. I mean E. coli does kill people.

DiMatteo: Well, I think that is up to the FDA and the USDA and the EPA to come out with warnings like that.

Stossel: Shouldn't I go on T.V. and warn people. Probably won't, but might kill you.

DiMatteo: I think you have to have all your statistics in order. The numbers of people that are actually affected, the types of infections, where it comes from and I think that it is probably more likely for people to get E. coli that is dangerous for them in terms of fatality probably from meat then it is from fresh produce.

Stossel: I believe that's right.

Stossel: So I mean Lester Crawford one of the things he said, he said the real question is does organic food justify the increase in cost on the basis of food safety. No.

DiMatteo: Organic agriculture is not particularly a food safety practice That's not what our standards are about.

Stossel: You're customers think that it's _______.

DiMatteo: I don't know that that's true. I think that is a statement that probably isn't true. Your own survey of consumers believe that organic is valuable to them because of its environmental practices and what it can do to help the health of the environment.

Stossel: But most of the people who bought it said they were buying it because they thought it was better for them.

DiMatteo: Well better for you has a number of connotations I would guess. Sometimes better for you means better for the long term of the environment. Sometimes better means better for your heart condition.

Stossel: You're right. Actually, the way we asked the question &emdash; would you say organic foods are healthy for you. Half the people said healthier. They are not.

DiMatteo: Well, I think that organic agriculture and its products are healthier for the environment.

Stossel: For the earth.

DiMatteo: For the earth. We reduce the use of long-term toxic persistent pesticides and fertilizers and by not using those we reduce the environmental risk that has been associated with health problems.

Stossel: Well, environmentally better, but for me the eater no difference.

DiMatteo: Well I think that is an individual choice and people want choice in the marketplace.

Stossel: One of the questions we asked. We asked people which do you think is more likely to be contaminated with residues that might make sick. Seventy percent said foods not grown organically, but the opposite is true. Your stuff was more likely to be contaminated.

DiMatteo: I think that people answer that question because they believe that there are a lot of things that impact them in terms of residues and certainly organic does not have pesticide residues to the same level. Not nearly the same levels because we don't use toxic persistent fertilizers, pesticides on our products and therefore we don't have the same level of pesticide residue.

Stossel: You do have pesticide residues.

DiMatteo: We have such residues only to the extent that there is background contamination from the environment. Dieldrin and DDT for instance were used as pesticides for many years. They have been banned now for a good twenty thirty years and effects of those two are still picked up in the environment, in our water, in the air, in the soil. So there are sometimes things that are totally unavoidable. What organic is trying to do is not put any further burden on the environment in terms of impact of those particular toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers.

Stossel: Now when you are talking about organic you are talking about your certified organic &emdash; remember what's the word.

DiMatteo: C.O.F. &emdash; certified organic farm and certified organic processing facility.

Stossel: How much of the organic food is certified.

DiMatteo: I would say right now about half of the products that are labeled organic are probably certified organic.

Stossel: So the other half is &emdash; who knows what it is.

DiMatteo: That's correct. Who knows what it is. There is not a consistent national program for organics at this time. Although in 1990 a law was passed that required all products be certified organic. USDA has not implemented that law yet.

Stossel: There is an old joke about organic foods. There is much more of it sold then grown. Is that true. People fake it.

DiMatteo: Well.

Stossel: _________ people don't.

DiMatteo: I would always guarantee that I would give a customer is to say it is a certified organic product. That product has been inspected at least once a year. Has had to follow strict standards both enforced by state programs and a system of private certification organization and also followed the requirements to have a farm plan where they monitor and have to record all the types of materials and the methods they use on their farm.

Stossel: And so you recommend that people look for the certification, because it is true that lots of people think.

DiMatteo: I don't have any numbers to say how many people are selling products as organic that are not truly grown as organic products, but I do know that certified organic farmers have been inspected annually and has followed a strict set of standards.

Stossel: Another way to ask the poll question &emdash; seventy percent of American &emdash; seventy percent in our survey believe that organic food is less likely to be contaminated with something that will make you sick, but based on our tests, your changes of getting sick from organic foods is pretty good.

DiMatteo: Organic agriculture is part of the food system, but organic agriculture is also about products that are not part of the food system. We have a lot of fiber products that are also grown organically. So our concerns are about environmental impact. We are not saying that people who eat conventionally grown products ingest pesticides and we are not saying that we are exempt from food safety and health and safety requirements. We have to be equally careful about what it does to control pathogens, to control bacteria. It is not justified at any food system to not have the most ________ and most carefully observed health and safety codes.

Stossel: Now a big selling point is that you don't use pesticides. Organic food is lower &emdash; you don't use pesticides.

DiMatteo: That's correct. We don't use __________ pesticides and fertilizers.

Stossel: Now pesticides kill insects and fungus so does that mean organic food is more likely to have insect parts and fungi?

DiMatteo: No, not at all. We have a very careful system of management, natural control and there is a lot that can be done just be carefully managing your crops, the types of crops that you grow, proper ________ and growing crops that are designed or best suited for a particular environment.

Stossel: Rodent hair?

DiMatteo: No, not at all. I think that organic is not exempt from any health and safety requirements.

Stossel: Have you done tests on that.

DiMatteo: Many of our producers certainly test to make sure that they are compliant.

Fitzpatrick: They have to go they say.

Stossel: Okay, let me wrap it up then. Based on our survey, most people think it is healthier. You're selling a lie.

DiMatteo: I don't think that that's true. We are selling a guarantee about an agricultural production system that we can verify through farm plans, handling plans and on site inspections.

Stossel: But it's not healthier.

DiMatteo: You are interrupting me.

Stossel: I am because you're not answering the questions. People think it is healthier, it's not. That's a lie.

DiMatteo: You define healthier for me.

Stossel: Healthier means less likely to be contaminated. More nutritious ____________. Is any of that true about organic.

DiMatteo: What is true about organics is that it is an agricultural production system that reduces the risk associated with environmental causes for cancer and other health problems.

Stossel: But fungi sometimes cause cancer.

DiMatteo: You would have to prove to me that there are fungi in organic products.

Stossel: It seems like organic foods are a con-job. Pay more and get something that is not healthier.

DiMatteo: That's not at all true. You are paying for a system that is protecting the environment now and in the future.

Stossel: It is not healthier for me as I eat it today.

DiMatteo: It is healthier if you think of it in terms of things like second hand smoke. Second hand smoke is somewhat invisible to our ______ make personal choices not to smoke cigarettes at all. We can't control where we are going to run into second hand smoke in the environment and that is true with pesticides and the effects it has on the environment. There are many, many studies that have been done that show that pesticides and chemical fertilizer use has many negative impacts on the environment that can be translated into health problems and we should do everything we possibly can to reduce those risks. Choosing organic is one way to do that.

Stossel: I would think people who pay more for organic food are suckers.

DiMatteo: I think that people pay more for food all the time because of their individual personal choices. Sometimes people will pay several dollars for a cup of coffee.

Stossel: You say there is no more fungus. One study of juiced organic apples found higher levels of a fungal toxin, one that has been linked to cancer. I am not saying that organic foods cause cancer, but one study found more fungus.

DiMatteo: One study.

Stossel: Yes, you're right

Bell: It's really time to wrap it up.

Stossel: One last question. Based on our tests, if I eat organic foods I am more likely to die from it. Die of E. coli.

DiMatteo: I don't think that that is a very fair assumption that you can make about a one time study in very limited samples that was challenged, I would think if you had a long term study of E. coli and conventional and organic agriculture.

Stossel: The CDC says since 1995 outbreaks of Salmonella and E. coli in alfalfa sprouts in five states resulted in more then a thousand confirmed cases of food poisoning.

DiMatteo: Those are not an organic product. Those are also on conventional products and the CDC also has more ways to collect data. They have more information, but the CDC director himself has said that it is not indicative of a trend or it doesn't say whether it is federal ____. It is just that they now have more information and from here they can begin to do the research that we all need to know about.

Stossel: We ought to do more of these tests.

DiMatteo: Yes, I think that that would be helpful for all people in the food systems from the producer right to the consumer.

Stossel: Okay, thank you very much.

DiMatteo: Thank you very much.