The Greens' Yellow Studies

ABC News reporter John Stossel didn't audition for the popular musical Les Miserables. But he's starring in a (way) Off-Broadway production nonetheless.

Les Mis is the story of Jean Valjean, a heroic figure in 19th century France who is relentlessly pursued for a trivial legal infraction by a villainous policeman, Inspector Javert. In Stossel's Les Mis, he's pursued by extreme environmental activists for the "crime" of setting consumers straight on organic foods — but making and repeating a misstatement in the process.

In a 20/20 report last February titled, "The Food You Eat: Organic Foods May Not Be as Healthy as You Think," Stossel said tests commissioned by ABC News indicated organic produce was more likely than conventional produce to be contaminated by E. coli bacteria. Stossel also said, "Our tests surprisingly found no pesticide residue on the conventional samples [of produce] or the organic" — thereby contradicting one of organic food's primary selling points.

The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group complained to ABC News that the pesticide tests were never conducted.

Meanwhile, Stossel repeated the statement about pesticides when "The Food You Eat" was re-broadcast on July 7.

This week, ABC acknowledged the produce tests for pesticides hadn't been conducted. "We are reviewing the circumstances surrounding the error," said ABC. The network said Stossel relied on inaccurate information provided by a staff member. Stossel is scheduled to apologize Friday, August 11 for the mistake.

But this was not enough for the EWG, which has demanded Stossel be fired "immediately for this outrageous breach of journalistic ethics." The major problem, though, seems to be one of form over substance. Stossel was trying to say that, as far as pesticides are concerned, organic produce is not safer than conventional produce.

And Stossel is correct.

Traces of pesticides are found on organic and conventional produce — that's not news. Organic foods acquire pesticide residues from water runoff, soil shifting and pesticides in the air.

In its January 1998 article titled "Greener Greens (The truth about organic food)," Consumer Reports reported a survey of pesticide residues on produce: "One-fourth of our organic samples had traces of pesticides, compared to 55 percent of the green-labeled samples and 77 percent of the unlabeled conventional samples ... Our tests show that ‘organic' doesn't necessarily mean ‘pesticide free.'"

More importantly, however, pesticide residues found in food, whether organic or not, are virtually always well within levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency — and the EPA standards are set many hundreds of times below levels at which noticeable effects may be observed in laboratory animals. This is why "no disease has ever been documented that stems from legal applications of pesticides," according to staunch pesticide opponent, Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

So what's the big deal? Should Stossel be axed? Or does the EWG have an axe to grind? Like Valjean, whose crime was to break parole after serving 19 years on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread, will Stossel's lifetime of good work be nullified by a trivial misstatement?

By his own admission, Stossel is a "reformed" television news consumer reporter. Stossel says of his early career, "I did a lot of alarmist reporting." Now he rails against such reporting on 20/20 and through special hour-long programs like, "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death," and "Junk Science: What You Know That Might Not Be So."

Instead of promoting health scares and scams, Stossel now exposes them. This threatens groups like the EWG, especially when a major television network regularly provides Stossel with prime air time. EWG has long viewed Stossel as a traitor to its cause, calling him in 1996 a "consumer activist turned industry advocate."

Certainly the EWG's search for the absolute truth is laudable. But the group should try a little introspection. The EWG is well known for spreading fear of pesticides through misinformation. Here are just a few examples:

— In touting its August 1997 report "Tough to Swallow," the EWG stated, "For the past twenty-five years, maybe longer, millions of people living in hundreds of midwestern communities have been routinely drinking tap water contaminated with an unhealthy dose of agricultural weed killers, many of which are carcinogens."

But the EWG based its report on the wrong safety standard — one the EWG fabricated. The federal safety standard for atrazine in drinking water was 3 parts per billion. But the EWG-created standard was 0.15 parts per billion. In response to the report, an official from the Ohio EPA said, "We're concerned when reports like this come out because they're making comparisons based on levels that don't exist."

— In touting its January 1998 report "Overexposed: Organophosphate Insecticides in Children's Food," the EWG stated, "Every day, one million American children age five and under consume unsafe levels of a class of pesticides that can harm the developing brain and nervous system, according to a new analysis of federal data..."

But the EWG did no analysis of safety. The study was based on regulatory levels of pesticides determined by the EPA called "reference doses" — levels that are set hundreds of times lower than actual "safe" levels to provide huge margins of safety. If the EWG had used "safe" levels instead of RfDs, their conclusion probably would have been that no child is exposed to "unsafe" levels of pesticides.

— In touting a February 1999 report about pesticides used on fruits, "How 'Bout Them Apples?", EWG spokesman Todd Hettenbach said, "Just a bite or two of an apple, peach or pear [by a child]" could "cause dizziness, nausea and blurred vision."

Mr. Hettenbach is "totally off the wall," says Laura Plunkett, a Phoenix neurotoxicologist who works as a consultant to the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and private industry. "Unless it were

Despite egregious misstatements which have been brought to its attention many times, the EWG has yet to apologize for or retract any of them. Apparently, eco-terrorism means never having to say you're sorry.

Stossel erred. But his message is correct — organic foods are not safer than non-organic foods based on pesticide residues. In contrast, the EWG's message — that pesticides in the environment are dangerous — is demonstrably wrong.

— Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of