Dear David Westin:
We are writing to express concern about the accuracy of John Stossel’s February 4 20/20 report, “The Food You Eat.” FAIR received numerous emails and phone calls questioning the veracity and objectivity of the report. After a preliminary investigation, we have some serious questions of our own about how the segment was produced.
The chief critic of organic foods in the report is Dennis Avery, identified as “a former research analyst for the Agriculture Department.” But Avery’s current and more relevant work is as director of the Center for Global Food Issues for the Hudson Institute, which receives funding from chemical companies like Monsanto, DuPont, ConAgra and Procter & Gamble, among others. Such facts, absent from the broadcast, would have enlightened viewers about Avery’s point of view (as would have the title of Avery’s infamous book, Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastics).
More importantly, Avery’s own research on organics has been widely challenged. (See “Anti-Organic and Flawed,” New York Times, 2/17/99.) Central to Avery’s theory about organic foods is a misreading of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Avery maintains that bacteria levels in organic foods are especially high because of the use of animal manure, a known carrier of one strain of E. coli. Avery says the data comes from Dr. Paul Mead at the CDC. But the CDC tells a different story, and even went so far as to issue a statement distancing themselves from the theory: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not conducted any study that compares or quantifies the specific risk for infection with E. coli 0157:H7 and eating either conventionally grown or organic/natural foods. (PR Watch, Fourth Quarter 99)
Perhaps since Avery’s claims are questionable, 20/20 conducted its own study comparing organic and non-organic foods. But the interpretation of the study presented on “The Food You Eat” is itself questionable. The narrow focus of the research—samples of organic and conventionally grown lettuce—certainly argues for a limited interpretation of the data. In fact, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) points out that the researcher hired by ABC warned that the study should not be interpreted too broadly.
To make matters worse, the ABC research project tested for non-specific E. coli, some of which might be harmful and some of which is not. The distinction is, of course, crucial to a story about food safety. The 20/20 report leaves the impression that the presence of any E. coli whatsoever could prove fatal.
Although 20/20 asked OTA for comment on the study’s results, OTA reports that producer David Fitzpatrick replied evasively to OTA’s “numerous” requests that he “clarify what types of E. coli were tested for.” The group says that they learned precisely what the study tested for only after they were interviewed for the segment, and were thus deprived of a chance to make fully informed comments. OTA voiced their concerns about this situation before the segment aired, in a November 8, 1999 letter to executive producer Victor Neufeld, but received no response.
Another of Avery’s dubious claims showcased in “The Food You Eat” is that, as Stossel puts it, organic farming is bad for the environment because it “waste[s] so much land,” and that the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetically engineered seeds adds up to “an environment-saving miracle.”
Despite the fact that Avery is employed by an institute that is partly funded by the very companies that produce chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetically engineered seeds, no guests who might have challenged these controversial assertions were included in the show. While a spokesperson from the Rodale Institute (which in 1998 published the results of a 15-year study on the environmental benefits of organic farming) was interviewed by 20/20, none of his comments were included in the segment.
If these distortions and omissions were simply the result of carelessness on the part of 20/20, that would be worrisome enough. But there are indications that a careful examination of the facts is not what Stossel intended. OTA claims that much of the information about E. coli and about Dennis Avery’s background was provided by OTA to 20/20 producer David Fitzpatrick prior to the broadcast. OTA public relations counselor Lisa Bell says that Fitzpatrick told her he did not feel Avery was a credible guest, and that he had strongly recommended to John Stossel that Avery not appear on the segment. In the end, neither OTA’s detailed information about Avery’s questionable background and claims, nor the reservations of one of 20/20’s own producers, seem to have been able to influence Stossel’s choice of guests.
While we understand that Stossel’s style is meant to be “provocative,” in the words of a former ABC News senior vice-president (Brill’s Content, 3/00), and that his programs attract a sizable audience, we would assume that preserving ABC News’ reputation for quality journalism is more important than short-term ratings.
Any clarification you can offer of the production process of “The Food You Eat” would be most welcome. In particular, FAIR is interested to learn why Avery’s theories were allowed to stand virtually uncontested as the core of a news segment, and why his affiliation with a group funded by businesses with a financial interest in the subject at hand was not disclosed to viewers. We would also appreciate it if you could confirm whether 20/20 received OTA’s information on Avery’s background, and their concerns about flaws in the show’s E. coli study, prior to the airing of the segment. We look forward to your response.
cc. Lisa Zeff, Keri Smith Marash, Eileen Murphy, Victor Neufeld, John Stossel, David Fitzpatrick
ABC’s Reply to FAIR:
March 7, 2000
130 W. 25th St.
New York, NY 10001
Dear Ms. Coen:
Thank you for your letter of February 22. At 20/20, we spent several months in production of our story “The Food You Eat” and we tried to ensure its fairness.
Mr. Avery is indeed director of the Center for Global Food Issues. He is paid $35,000 per annum for this particular duty. He says, and we have no reason to doubt him, that he’s never met or seen or been influenced by any representatives of the businesses who contribute to the Hudson Institute. Mr. Avery says the bulk of his yearly income is a federal pension.
Mr. Avery’s research has not been, as you write, “widely challenged.” It has been disputed principally by organic farm organizations and environmental groups, which are the main targets of his writings.
Mr. Avery has acknowledged to us and to anyone who would listen that his initial interpretation of data from the Centers for Disease Control was flawed. But, as you yourself noted, ABC News did not rely on those interpretations. And far from “distancing” itself from the theory, all the CDC says is that is hasn’t done any studies whatsoever on the relationship between conventionally grown and organic foods.
We paid both Georgetown University and the University of Georgia to conduct a three month study because we couldn’t find any laboratory research anywhere in the country to contrast conventional and organic products. The test, as we acknowledge in our report, was not for a scientific research paper but neither was it as “narrow” as you claim. In fact, the transcript, which you may not have read ,cites samples of parsley, broccoli, sprouts, lettuce and other foods.
As to the type of E.coli tested, it was “generic” and not “pathogenic.” But both the study’s director, Dr. Michael Doyle, and the lead food safety scientists at the CDC say that any and all testing of the type we conducted is, ipso facto, “generic.” Any “generic” findings of the bacteria serves as a watchlamp to the presence of the most deadly type of E.coli. Your research probably shows that. Further, we were extremely careful to have expert testimony point out that it is pathogenic, not ordinary, E.coli that are dangerous.
We provided the full results of our testing to the Organic Trade Association well in advance of our on camera interview and I can assure you, I never told Ms. Bell or anyone else that I felt we should not interview Mr. Avery.
Finally, we did receive OTA’s concerns about Mr. Avery before our segment was broadcast. We read the letter and we clearly identified Mr. Avery in our story as a “leading critic” of organic agriculture.
We understand that you wish to defend the organic food industry and you may have mis-read or glossed over parts of what we did. But assure you [SIC], our story was accurate.
David W. Fitzpatrick
ABC News, 20/20
FAIR’s Follow-up Letter to ABC:
27 March 2000
ABC News, 20/20
147 Columbus Ave.
New York, NY 10023-5900
Dear Mr. Fitzpatrick,
Thank you for your March 7th reply to FAIR’s letter regarding John Stossel’s 20/20 report on organics, “The Food You Eat.”
Unfortunately, your response sidesteps many of the questions outlined in our letter. FAIR is a media watch group, concerned primarily with monitoring journalistic integrity and advocating for greater balance in the mainstream media. Parts of your letter– you suggest that we “may not have read” the transcript of the show we critiqued, and that we may have deliberately “glossed over” aspects of 20/20’s report out of a “wish to defend the organic food industry”– indicate a basic misunderstanding of FAIR’s work and a disappointing willingness to minimize our concerns about whether “The Food You Eat” met ABC’s standards for good journalism.
Central to our concerns about “The Food You Eat” is that Dennis Avery was the chief critic of organic foods cited, and that his dubious theories seem to have been allowed to direct the focus of the report. It is hard to understand on what you base your contention that Avery’s research has not been widely challenged—even a cursory review of writings by and about Avery reveals that many questions about his methodology and accuracy have been raised. Enclosed is a copy of the New York Times article on Avery, “Anti-Organic and Flawed,” that we referred to in our last letter; the article not only points out several major factual errors in Avery’s work, but draws a connection between such misinformation and the funding Avery receives from agribusiness.
In your letter, you focus on what proportion of his annual income Avery receives from the Hudson Institute. But the relative size of Avery’s Institute salary is irrelevant to whether 20/20 should have disclosed, in a report on organic food, his position as director of the Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues. As further evidence of his reliability, you repeat his assertion that he has “never met or seen or been influenced by any representatives” of businesses that fund the Hudson Institute, adding, “we have no reason to doubt him.”
As a journalist, you have every reason not to take at face value a source’s evaluation of his or her own integrity. “Test the accuracy of information from all sources” is the first tenet listed in the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. For more detailed discussion of why it’s important for journalists to disclose this sort of relationship to the public, see the enclosed article “Dr. Whelan’s Media Operation,” by the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz, from the March-April 1990 Columbia Journalism Review. The article deals with the American Council on Science and Health, a group Avery also advises.
While you reply to some of our questions about Avery’s prior record, your letter fails to address our concerns about Stossel’s uncritical repetition of Avery’s theory that organic farming “waste[s] so much land” and that the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetically engineered seeds adds up to “an environment-saving miracle.” Stossel summarizes Avery’s theories as such during the broadcast, but contrary scientific evidence that is readily available was not included.
In response to our concerns about the show’s questionable use of data from a study comparing bacteria levels in conventional and organic produce, you state that 20/20 was “extremely careful to have expert testimony point out that it is pathogenic, not ordinary, E. coli that are dangerous.” Reviewing the transcript of “The Food You Eat” again, we were unable to find this testimony. Dr. Lester Crawford of Georgetown University is shown saying that “you can handle spoilage bacteria, but you can’t handle pathogens,” but this remark was not connected to John Stossel’s explanation of 20/20’s E. coli test. More importantly, nowhere in the show’s description of the test is it mentioned that the results did not differentiate between harmful and benign E. coli.
You also dispute Lisa Bell’s contention that, after reviewing information compiled by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) about Avery’s background, you stated that you did not feel Avery would make a credible guest. When we related your response to Ms. Bell, she expressed considerable surprise, and reaffirmed that both she and OTA executive director Katherine DiMatteo clearly recall you expressing doubts about Avery’s credentials.
In any case, the details of that particular conversation are less important than the fact that OTA provided you with documentation that should have raised questions for 20/20 about featuring Avery as an expert, particularly without disclosing his past track record and potential conflicts of interest.
Our basic questions to ABC remain: Why, in a news segment evaluating the safety of organic food, were the questionable theories of a source closely affiliated with chemical and agribusiness companies (companies with a financial interest in discrediting organics) allowed to form the backbone of the report? And why were his professional affiliations not disclosed to viewers?
We look forward to your reply.
cc. Lisa Zeff, Keri Smith Marash, Eileen Murphy, Victor Neufeld, John Stossel, David Westin