A curious battle has erupted on the organics front, one that assails public perceptions about the value of the category and one that set off internecine warfare between a couple of New York-based media giants.
It all started in February when the ABC News broadcast "20/20" aired a segment that called into question whether organic product is worth the extra price point it commands, as compared with conventional product, and also posited that organic product actually presents food-safety hazards that aren't in conventional product. The assertions were repeated in last month's rebroadcast of the program, and in a network news feed to affiliated stations.
conventional product pose any hazard from pesticide residue, and that organics have a higher presence of E. coli bacteria. Cited as an authority for those conclusions was original research
commissioned by ABC. John Stossel, the ABC correspondent who aired the findings, asked during the broadcasts if organic product shouldn't carry a "warning that says this stuff could kill you, and that buying organic could kill you." Shortly after the initial broadcast, the Environmental Working Group, Washington, a supporter of organic food and farming methods, opened a probe into what was behind ABC's research. That effort produced denials from the ABC-hired researchers that they had tested for produce residues at all. They also stipulated that the E. coli -- indeed found in greater concentrations on organic product -- was "generic," not necessarily pathogenic. That means it couldn't be determined by the research itself whether the E. coli was harmful or benign.
Stossel -- including a call for his dismissal -- on its Web site at www.ewg.org. There the matter might have slumbered peacefully had it not been picked up last month by the New York Times. (SN published a news article about the brouhaha last week, and there's a news brief about it on Page 22 of this week's issue.)
The Times article recited many of the EWG's assertions. That ignited so much heat that Stossel was to have issued an apology during last Friday's edition of "20/20." Reportedly, Stossel is to be reprimanded by ABC, and a producer suspended for 30 days. Incidentally, the same Stossel is to make an appearance at the Western Food Industry Conference, to be Oct. 22 to 25 in Las Vegas.
First, the assertions advanced by "20/20" remain unresolved, at least by the report itself, and are worthy of an accurate and high-profile airing. Second, organics sales appear to be under pressure, perhaps, in part, because of this publicity. That's suggested by a decline in same-store sales at Wild Oats, and the move of "natural" purveyors toward the mainstream. (See Page 25 and last week's Page 1 of SN.) Finally, and on a different level, the power of Internet publishing has been demonstrated again by the episode, although it took a push from conventional media to motivate action.