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Saving the Planet With Pestilent Statistics

by Karen Charman

Dennis T. Avery, author of the tract "Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic," proudly describes himself as a missionary. His mission: to protect and promote "high-yield farming to save wildlife."

Besides writing a nationally syndicated weekly column for the financial newswire Bridge News, Avery is also the director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues. He travels the country and the world preaching his gospel of biotechnology, pesticides, irradiation, factory farming and free trade. According to Avery, it is the greenies and "organic frenzies" who threaten the world with famine and loss of habitat for their sacred wildlife. Why? Because farming without synthetic pesticides, petrochemical fertilizers and biotechnology would require too much land.

Avery sees no problem with agricultural pollution, be it groundwater contamination, pesticide and fertilizer runoff, or even the mountains of stinking manure produced by the huge cattle, chicken and hog operations that plague increasing numbers of rural communities. He denies that there is any link between pesticides and cancer or other illnesses. In fact, he says, organic food is what will kill you.

Last Fall Avery began claiming that "people who eat organic and 'natural' foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (0157:H7)." This happens, he says, because organic food is grown in animal manure, a known carrier of this nasty microbe. He says his data comes from Dr. Paul Mead, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the federal agency that tracks outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Avery continues delivering this message with op-eds that bear titles such as "The Silent Killer in Organic Foods" and "Wallace Institute Got it Wrong: CDC Data Does Indicate Higher Risk From Organic and Natural Foods." These editorials are diseminated by Bridge News to between 300 and 400 newspapers throughout the country and approximately 500,000 other subscribers here and abroad including government departments, central banks and businesses.

I heard Avery's sermon live in June 1999 at the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska. After his talk I asked him why he quoted the CDC as the source of his information when they deny having data attributing E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks to organic food. He accused CDC of engaging in a "cover-up" due to pressure from environmentalists.

Back home I noticed more than a couple of similar stories popping up in various venues. One particularly sloppy story, titled "Organic Food Creates Higher Risk for Food Poisoning," was posted on August 25, 1999 on USDA's National Food Safety Database by US Newswire, a service that electronically disseminates news releases. Though this story doesn't quote Avery, it quotes the CDC's Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases Branch chief, Dr. Robert Tauxe, saying, "Organic food means a food was grown in animal manure."

Tauxe denies ever making that statement and says he believes the rumor originated with Dennis Avery. After fielding numerous media queries on the subject, CDC took the unusual step on January 14, 1999 of issuing a press release stating, "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not conducted any study that compares or quantitates the specific risk for infection with E. coli 0157:H7 and eating either conventionally grown or organic/natural foods." In addition, Tauxe says he called Avery to tell him to stop claiming that the CDC was the source of this allegation. Avery responded by telling Tauxe, "That's your interpretation, and I have mine."

Avery's newest version of what happened with the CDC is that Dr. Paul Mead, an epidemiologist who works in Tauxe's division, gave him the information. Absolute bunk, says Mead. "What happened is that he called me up and announced that eight percent of the outbreaks of foodborne illness were from organic food. I took some exception to that and said I didn't know him and what his purpose was, but our data don't support that." Mead was chagrined to hear that a year after this conversation took place, Avery is still sourcing this phantom data back to him.

Contrary to Avery's claim, E. coli 0157:H7 contamination from manure is less likely to occur on organic farms than in the factory farming system that Avery supports. Fred Kirschenmann is an organic farmer and board chairman of the private organic certification company Farm Verified Organic. He points out that a single cow produces approximately 10 times as much fecal matter as a human being. This means that a feedlot of, say, 5,000 head of cattle would produce the same amount of manure as 50,000 people. Yet modern conventional agriculture does not regulate the use of raw manure in food crops, Kirschenmann says, and farmers are spreading increasing amounts of it on their fields because it is too expensive to truck away and they don't have anywhere else to put it.

Kirschenmann serves on the National Organic Standards Board which was charged by Congress to advise the USDA in formulating its legal standards defining organic food. "In organic systems, most animals have to have access to pasture, so they can't be concentrated in huge feedlots," he says, adding that Avery's charge that organic food is grown in manure is misleading, at best. "Organic farmers use manure, but virtually every certification organization I know of doesn't allow raw manure. Raw manure must either be composted or applied long enough in advance that the bacteria is no longer active," he said, adding that this requirement is being written into USDA's proposed rules.

Dr. Robert Elder, a research microbiologist at the USDA's Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, specializes in measuring E. coli 0157:H7 in cattle. He says this deadly bacteria could be prevented from contaminating meat carcasses before they are ground into hamburger. "If you took meticulous time with every single carcass to vigorously clean it, scrub it, and wash it down, you could probably eliminate it," he said. But, Elder added, considering that the bigger plants are processing 3,000 to 4,000 animals a day--about 300 an hour--adequate cleaning is impossible. And that is a huge problem for the public. Elder's soon-to-be published research shows that in the summertime, when E. coli 0157:H7 levels peak, 80 to 100 percent of the feedlot cattle he tested carried the deadly 0157:H7 strain.

Despite a public debunking of Avery's statements in the New York Times last February, his bogus claims continue to spread and appear to be gaining momentum. U.S. newspapers like the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Investor's Business Daily, and the Journal of Commerce have run stories about killer organic food. The story has also made its way to Canada and Europe, under headlines such as, "Organic just means it's dirtier, more expensive," "Organic food--'It's eight times more likely to kill you'" and "Organic food link to E. coli deaths."

Even E. coli expert Rob Elder said he wouldn't eat organic food or feed it to his family because it was more pathogenic. When I asked where he got that information, he sent me a copy of an Avery piece, "Organic food? No thanks!" that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last December. Upon further questioning, Elder said a colleague had given it to him and said that Avery worked for the CDC, so he thought it was a credible source.

I asked Sally Heinemann, the editorial director of Bridge News, if its syndicated columnists had to meet any particular criteria and whether Bridge checked the accuracy of Avery's columns. Instead of answering, she began shouting, "Who are you? Who do you represent? What do you really want to know? Go find it on the web!" before slamming the phone down.

Avery says he can pretty much say what he likes, because he works for himself as an economic forecaster to farming organizations and doesn't have to worry about anybody firing him. Referring to his past employment with the US State Department and USDA, he adds: "I have full federal retirement, and I already own the prettiest small farm in America." He considers the $35,000 a year he gets from the Hudson Institute to be very little, and says he only needs money "to carry on the mission."

Avery acknowledges that Hudson is corporate-funded. Looking over the roster of companies that have supported its work--agrichemical heavyweights like Monsanto, Du Pont, DowElanco, Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy and agribusiness giants ConAgra, Cargill, Procter & Gamble, among many others--Avery likely has no reason to fear the axe. His mission is their mission.

The Trashman Speweth

Since April Fool's Day of 1996, self-proclaimed public health expert Steven J. Milloy has been turning out a daily stream of anti-environmental, anti-public health commentary through his "Junk Science Home Page" on the internet (www.junkscience.com).

Adolescent sarcasm is Milloy's forte. If his targets aren't "psychologically challenged" or "bogus," they are fear-mongering "environmental extremists," "blowhards," "turkeys," "nut cases," or members of the "food police." Though he claims to trumpet "sound science," he has savagely attacked the world's most prestigious scientific journals including Science, Nature, the Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine. His chutzpah recently reached new lows with the posting (removed after complaints) of an "Obituary of the Day" that gloated over the death of former NIH environmental scientist David Rall, who was killed in a car crash.

"'Junk science' is faulty scientific data and analysis used to further a special agenda," Milloy's website proclaims. The practitioners of junk science, he says, include environmentalists, public health and food safety regulators, anti-nuclear activists, animal rights activists, the EPA, Al Gore, people with illnesses, and anyone who dares to question the excesses of our corporate-driven industrial society.

In addition to disputing the scientific basis for these concerns, Milloy frequently accuses the questioners of tainted motives. The media, he says, uses junk science to advance particular social and political agendas. Trial lawyers use it to "bamboozle juries into awarding huge verdicts." Social activists use it to achieve social and political change. Government bureaucrats use it to fatten their budgets. Businesses use junk science to trash competitors' products or promote their own. Politicians use it to "curry favor with special interest groups or to be 'politically correct.'" Individual scientists seek fame and fortune. People who are sick, "real or imagined," draw on junk science "to blame others for causing their illness."

Conversely, "sound science" in Milloy's book seems to be any science that makes it impossible to point the finger of blame--a definition that perfectly suits many of the corporations for which he has worked. For years, Milloy was registered as a lobbyist for the EOP Group, a Washington, DC firm whose clients include the American Crop Protection Association (pesticides), the Chlorine Chemistry Council, Edison Electric Institute (fossil and nuclear energy), Fort Howard Corp. (a paper manufacturer) and the National Mining Association. The clients for whom Milloy was personally registered included Monsanto and the International Food Additives Council. Both Milloy and the EOP Group claim that he no longer works there, but he was still registered as an EOP lobbyist as recently as the summer of 1999.

In 1997 and 1998, Milloy was also executive director of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a pro-industry coalition created in 1993 to promote "sound science" in policy decision-making. TASSC, which is not currently active, claims more than 400 corporate members representing chemical, agricultural, manufacturing, oil, dairy, timber, paper and mining interests. Supporters include 3M, Amoco, Chevron, Dow Chemical, Exxon, General Motors, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Lorillard Tobacco, the Louisiana Chemical Association, the National Pest Control Association, Occidental Petroleum, Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, Santa Fe Pacific Gold Corp., and W.R. Grace & Co.

Milloy also ran the Environmental Policy Analysis Network (EPAN), a right-wing, Washington-based think tank affiliated with the libertarian, anti-regulatory and anti-environmental movements. His website notes his authorship of a paper titled "Choices in Risk Assessment: The Role of Science Policy in the Environmental Risk Management Process," which argues that many environmental risks are minuscule and can't be proven.

Milloy is currently an "adjunct scholar" with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, DC that has received funding from the American Farm Bureau Federation, several large oil companies, big tobacco, pharmaceutical giants, and agricultural chemical and biotechnology manufacturers. The Cato Institute has published two books by Milloy, Science Without Sense and Silencing Science, the latter with co-author Michael Gough, a former fellow Cato adjunct scholar.

One of Milloy's newer projects is the "Consumer Distorts" website (www.consumerdistorts.com), which alleges a "renewed emphasis on 'junk science' at Consumer Reports." Milloy describes the magazine's publisher, Consumers Union, as a "lobbying group that advocates extreme environmental positions" and accuses it of publishing "'sensational' reports that advance its political agenda." He takes particular exception to the magazine's reporting on food biotech, plastics and pesticides and says its reporting is really anti-consumer, because it "needlessly alarms consumers about the safety of consumer goods" which "reduces consumer choice by scaring consumers away from products."

Aside from his daily website postings, Milloy writes opinion pieces that are picked up by dozens of newspapers and trade publications across the country, including the New York Post, the Washington Times, New Australian, San Francisco Examiner, Detroit Free Press, Cincinnati Enquirer and Chemical and Engineering News. In a piece picked up in October by Business Investor's Daily, Milloy dismisses reports on controversial aspects of food biotechnology as "little myths [that] take on epic status when reporters don't provide background."

The Chicago Sun-Times has also run "special reports" by Milloy that are designed to mimic news stories rather than editorials. In "Modified Crops Cause Concern," he downplays the biotech uproar in Europe, suggesting that the European public will come around to accept America's genetically modified harvest because testing is too expensive and the system is not set up to test or segregate GM and non-GM crops. In another story, titled "Study Eases Gene-altered Corn Fears," he dismisses concerns raised by the deadly effect of bioengineered Bt corn on Monarch butterflies.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Milloy's writing for the Chicago Sun-Times is the newspaper's failure to provide its readers with any information about his background as an industry flack with far-right views. It describes him simply as "a Washington-based business writer specializing in science" who "holds advanced degrees in health sciences from Johns Hopkins University and a law degree from Georgetown University." (In reality, Milloy's "advanced degrees in health sciences" consist of a bachelor's degree in natural sciences and a master's degree in biostatistics.)

In fact, many of the news stories that quote Milloy have tended to inflate or distort his credentials. He has been described in various places as a "risk expert," an "economist," "president of the Environmental Policy Analysis Network," "publisher of the junk science home page," a "consultant," a "noted junk science expert," a "statistician," and "adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute." But whatever he is called, corporate polluters know that they can depend on the Junkman to help confuse public debate, thereby preventing scrutiny of their activities and helping protect their bottom lines.

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