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ABC's 20/20 Apologizes to Organic IndustryABC's <I/>20/20</I> Apologizes to Organic Industry

August 8, 2000

3 Min Read
ABC's <I/>20/20</I> Apologizes to Organic Industry

NEW YORK--ABC News admitted on Aug. 8 that a controversial report on organic foods was based on unsubstantiated research. On Friday, Aug. 11, the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 offered a public apology for making false statements in a Feb. 4 broadcast about organic produce. 20/20 correspondent John Stossel hosted the segment, in which organic crops were said to have the same amount of pesticide residue as conventional crops. The report was repeated on July 7, and in that airing, Stossel shared his personal opinion of organic foods.

After the initial broadcast, the two researchers who were supposedly commissioned by ABC for the pesticide testing went on record and said they had never been approached by ABC, nor had they conducted the tests. After speaking with the researchers, members of the Environmental Working Group (EWC) brought the error to ABC's attention. However, it was not until the end of July, when a New York Times article questioned the validity of the organic segment, that ABC finally addressed the concerns.

On Aug. 11, Stossel made the apology on the air at the end of the 20/20 broadcast. According to ABC, Stossel was not personally repsonsible for the misinformation. He reportedly relied on information given to him by one of the show's producers.The producer responsible for gathering the information was suspended for 30 days. The network said it still needed to look into the EWC's concern that the segment misinformed the public by reporting that organic food may be contaminated by a dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria.

The apology consisted of a brief statement from Stossel which noted that what he said about pesticide residues was incorrect. " I said our tests found no pesticide residues on either conventional or organic produce," Stossel said. "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."

However, the EWC noted, he also said in the report [in reference to finding E. coli residue] that "organic produce could kill consumers." The EWC requested that ABC retract the statement and that a more truthful account of the E. coli test results--which only tested for generic E. coli, a non-harmful strain found in the guts of humans and animals--is presented.

According to Stossel, "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."

According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the on-air apology was not enough to make amends to the organic industry. "ABC blatantly used unfair and untruthful tactics to attack organic agriculture," said Katherine DiMatteo, OTA's executive director. "The 20/20 report was inaccurate, irresponsible, and deceived the public. [The] apology does not begin to cover the damages the show caused to the reputation of the organic industry." She added, "Reputable news shows should be above such deplorable behavior."

DiMatteo asked that ABC apologize in writing to the OTA and to all organic farmers. She asked that it air a retraction during "sweeps week" and during the summer, that ABC withdraw its archives of the story and replace it with correct information, and that ABC should stop distribution of the erroneous story, especially to affiliates. "The public has the right to know the truth--that the claims 20/20 made against organic were unfounded," said DiMatteo.

For more information, visit www.abcnews.go.com or www.ota.org.

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