20/20: Stossel Apology for Organic Food Report

ByJohn Stossel

Aug. 11, 2000 -- EDITOR’S NOTE: ABCNEWS correspondent John Stossel in February presented a report on organic produce. Here, he offers a correction and an apology:

In February on this program I did a report on organic produce. I said, in essence, why buy it when it costs so much more? I interviewed a critic who questioned some of the widely assumed advantages of organic produce — that it’s more nutritious or safer.

I reported on tests, commissioned by 20/20, that found bacterial contamination, including E. coli, on some samples of both organic and non-organic produce. The Organic Trade Assn. and Washington’s Environmental Working Group wrote us complaining the E. coli test our experts used was the wrong test because it tests for all kinds of E. coli, not just the kinds that can make you sick. Well, its true that this test was for all kinds of E. coli.

But government and other experts we spoke to confirm that this is a standard test for contamination of food, because the presence of E. coli on produce is an indicator for fecal contamination, and fecal contamination means the product may contain various kinds of bacteria that could make you sick.

‘Safe Choice’

The Organic Trade Association also wrote us that certified organic food is “a safe choice in the marketplace.”

I want to make it clear that I agree. America’s food supply — conventional and organic — is remarkably safe; bacteria can be a risk though — in both organic and conventional produce — so we should wash all produce before we eat it.

I have also been criticized for not including in our report the results of some tests we did on chicken.

For the record, here’s what those tests found: no bacterial contamination on either conventional or organic chickens. Six chickens were tested for pesticides. Two were organic, and had no pesticides. Some of the conventional chickens had what the expert who did the test called “trace amounts of pestcides,” which he said were too small to be of any public health significance.

Our report was about produce not meat or poultry, which involve different issues. For example, chicken isn’t grown in fertilizer, and you cook it, which kills bacteria, so we decided not to include chicken in this report.

However, I also made a comment about pesticides on produce. I said our tests found no pesticide residues on either conventional or organic produce. That was just wrong. The labs we used never tested the produce for pesticides. We thought they had, but they hadn’t. We misunderstood, and that was our fault.

Then we made things worse. In July, I repeated the report! And the error. It was an inadvertent error, and just two sentences in a ten-minute report, but it was wrong.

I apologize for the error. I am deeply sorry I misled you. I never want to do that. All we have in this business is our credibility — your trust that we get it right — I will make every effort to see that it never happens again.

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