Fake Fat, Fake Fears

The "food police" must be at their wits' end in their crusade against the fat substitute Olestra. Frustrated in attacks on Olestra's safety, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is leading a bizarre attack on the credibility of a science journal.

CSPI claims the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology is so biased in favor of industry that its prominent publisher, Elsevier Science, should install a new editorial board.

CSPI’s latest round of goofiness started last April when it sent the Food and Drug Administration allegations that consumers suffered adverse reactions from Olestra-containing products, such as Fat-Free Pringles and Frito-Lay WOW! chips.

"With close to 20,000 reports forwarded to the agency from both CSPI and Olestra developer Procter & Gamble, the FDA has logged more complaints about Olestra than it has about all other food additives in history combined," CSPI proclaimed in a media release.

The FDA, caring more about quality than quantity, dismissed the CSPI report.

The FDA said such reports already were considered when it re-endorsed the safety of Olestra in 1998. "While we received additional reports of a similar nature since that time, we know of no new issues that have not been considered previously," responded the FDA last June.

The FDA also cited two studies published in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology that further deflated CSPI's case.

About one study the FDA wrote: "In this study a number of people who reported having an allergic reaction to Olestra snacks were re-challenged. That study reports that none of the individuals were found to have a positive response to Olestra upon eating Olestra-containing potato chips or to a skin prick test with Olestra."

But rather than challenge the science that went into the study published in RTP, CSPI opted to challenge RTP itself.

CSPI orchestrated a Nov. 19 letter to Elsevier alleging that RTP editors failed to disclose financial ties with companies whose products are the subject of published studies. The letter also claims RTP editorials are anti-regulatory and that it's merely a "convenient venue for publication of industry research."

Sure, some RTP editorial board members have ties with a wide variety of businesses. So what?

As Elsevier responded to CSPI, "academics and ranking government officials also support [the journal]. Regulatory issues by their very nature affect industry and it is therefore only logical that editorial board members have ties to industry," wrote Elsevier.

Moreover, the existence of such relationships does not mean that RTP publishes substandard science, nor did CSPI offer a single example of substandard science.

CSPI also didn't cite a failure to disclose a relevant conflict-of-interest. Ironically, CSPI noted that in three recent issues of RTP, "more than 60 percent of the articles were generated by scientists from industry laboratories."

But how did CSPI derive this statistic? By reading the disclosed author affiliations in RTP!

And imagine that RTP editors have the nerve to express opinions in their editorials! Elsevier noted, "Discussions in the journal focus on the appropriate level of regulation, not the minimization or maximization thereof."

The letter is outrageous. But I wasn't surprised given CSPI's involvement, and the letter's 44 signatories. They read like a Who's Who of Junk Science. Consider these few examples.

The University of Pittsburgh's Herbert Needleman was infamously brought up on federal charges of scientific misconduct involving a study on lead exposure and childhood intelligence. Though not convicted of the difficult-to-prove charges, he wasn't exactly vindicated either. The federal Office of Research Integrity said Needleman's handiwork was "difficult to explain as honest error."

Carnegie Mellon University's Devra Davis has long claimed chemicals in the environment cause everything from cancer to more girls than boys being born. Sir Richard Doll, a highly regarded scientist who helped establish the link between smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s, once told Science magazine that Davis' work was "uninteresting," "uninformative," "boring" and "old junk."

Then there's the University of Illinois cancer alarmist Samuel Epstein. His latest evidence-free scare is that cosmetics and toiletries cause cancer.

I was initially disturbed to see listed as a signatory former National Cancer Institute director Dr. Arthur Upton. As a radiation expert, Upton usually is level-headed about health risks.

But it turns out Dr. Upton didn't sign the letter -- at least knowingly. He was approached about the general concept of a letter on sound editorial practices. But he doesn't remember seeing the actual letter and, in any event, repudiates the CSPI letter.

CSPI ironically told Elsevier that its reputation is "jeopardized by journals that fail to live up to basic journalistic standards."

Yeah, but what about signing someone to a libelous letter without his knowledge? What standard of conduct does that meet?

CSPI's Olestra scare was always intellectually bankrupt. I guess CSPI is just ensuring moral bankruptcy as well.

Steven Milloy is the publisher ofJunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001)

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