Viewpoint: Consumer Reports should stick to advice about cars and toilets; Its policy advocacy is misguided

This article originally ran at Forbes and has been republished here with permission of the author.

The editors of the once highly regarded Consumer Reports should heed the Rule of Holes: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. On various aspects of food policy, it’s a wonder they can see daylight.

On the heels of a Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health news release about how the messaging on organic food can confuse consumers, Consumer Reports has provided a sterling example: exaggerating the risks of pesticides in conventional produce and recommending an exclusively organic diet. But for consumers who cannot afford to purchase overpriced organic food exclusively, CR released a handy shopping guide with information about when buying organic is only optional and when it “is a must.”

At a time when most Americans’ diets fall short of the recommended amounts of fruits and veggies, CR was correct to emphasize their importance, but otherwise the report fails miserably to convey balanced, evidence-based information. For example, a video accompanying the online report declared, “Here at Consumer Reports, we believe that you should buy organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible. This can reduce your exposure to potentially harmful pesticides and protect the environment and farmers who grow our food.”

The operative word is “believe,” because it illustrates Consumer Reports’ sad descent into the realm of ideology—or more accurately, superstition. Touting the so-called “expert” opinions of Charles Benbrook and Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine and whose mission is “policy and advocacy”) senior scientist Michael Hansen—two well-known fantasists about the dangers of genetic engineering and the benefits of organic agriculture—CR’s video advises: “It’s important to eat a diet rich in fruits and veggies, period. Organic just makes those choices even better.”

The facts argue otherwise.

Organic farming typically produces 20%-50% percent lower yields than conventional agriculture, is wasteful of farmland and water, releases more CO2 into the atmosphere, increases soil erosion, and makes crops more prone to infestations by insects and toxic fungi. Moreover, it hasn’t been shown to be safer or more nutritious. A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy aggregated and analyzed data from 237 studies to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than non-organic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for “organic” were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts, nor were those foods less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella.

The Consumer Reports video continued, “Scientists, including our own here at Consumer Reports, believe the use of a combination of pesticides in the food supply raises health concerns from cancer to birth defects, though the long-term effects of dietary exposure are unknown.” Do they rate dishwashers, tires or lawnmowers according to what they “believe,” without the benefit of hard evidence? On the contrary, CR built its reputation by actually obtaining and reporting data.

CR’s consultant Charles Benbrook is a longtime shill for organic farming and is well known for unsubstantiated claims about negative health and environmental impacts of conventional agriculture and genetic engineering. With his help, CR has developed the Shopper’s Guide, which is nothing more than a cleverly-disguised propaganda vehicle for promoting organic foods. In a way, that is appropriate, given that the original purpose of the government’s creation of organic standards was intended to be nothing more than a marketing gimmick. “Let me be clear about one thing,” Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said when organic certification was being considered, “the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”

In other words, gullible consumers are squandering billions of dollars on a government-sponsored marketing gimmick that was neither intended to nor offers any palpable benefits.

The CR guide is a seemingly practical way to decide–based on pesticide residues and country of origin–which of 48 popular produce items to “always buy organic”; when it’s okay to buy conventional; and when to “beware” of conventional choices. Based on 12 years of data from the Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program, Benbrook and CR scientists sorted produce-country combinations into five supposed “risk categories.” Some consumers might find this guide straightforward. But it isn’t, and neither is CR’s agenda.

Consumers Union is a US-based nonprofit organization that claims to campaign and advocate for the passage of consumer protection laws. Its magazine, Consumer Reports, has gained consumer trust by providing thorough and mostly reliable reviews of products from appliances to automobiles, chain saws to chocolate-chip cookies. However, its support of the organic food and natural products industry while conducting misleading, unethical “black marketing”—that is, trashing genetic engineering–in cahoots with anti-biotechnology organizations like the Center for Food Safety has gone largely unnoticed. CR is now betraying this public trust by fearmongering about non-organic produce. Throwing around terms like “risk,” and warnings to “beware,” CR clearly intends to elicit consumers’ anxiety and to shape their behavior in ways that are actually inimical to their best interests.

That’s where the Shopper’s Guide comes in. Rather than being user-friendly, it is complicated and hard to use in practice. A shopper using the guide would have to determine the supposed “risk” level of every produce item, determine its country of origin, locate the country on the guide, and decide, after taking price into consideration, whether conventional is worth the risk. By trying to link conventional pesticide exposure to developmental problems in children and cancer in adults, the guide serves to confuse, implying that consumers should avoid risk by opting for organic whenever possible. Although the guide looks practical, wielding it in the produce section would prove inconvenient and frustrating. Worst of all, its rationale makes no sense.

The guide is misleading because it focuses on making purchasing decisions according to pesticide residues, a poor basis for making choices. While the Stanford study described above found that non-organic fruits and vegetables had more pesticide residue, the levels in more than 99% of cases did not cross the extremely conservative safety thresholds set by regulators.

Related article:  Debate over GMOs and other science controversies should center more in values and politics

More to the point, the vast majority of the pesticidal substances associated with produce occur “naturally” in people’s diets, and are found in conventional and organic fruits and vegetables. The eminent biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues have found that “99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. Only 52 natural pesticides have been tested in high-dose animal cancer tests, and about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present in many common foods.”

Ames’ bottom line is that natural chemicals are just as likely as synthetic versions to test positive in animal cancer studies, and “at the low doses of most human exposures, the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.” In other words, consumers who buy expensive organic foods—which can cost several times their non-organic counterparts–in order to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on 0.01% of the pesticides that they consume. The remaining 99.99 percent of pesticidal substances is actually part of the plants and, to use Consumer Reports’ intentionally pejorative term, cannot be washed off.

It is unclear whether the shoppers guide is simply part of Hansen, Benbrook and CR’s misguided lobbying for organic foods or whether it is also part of their campaign to require labeling of foods from organisms crafted with molecular genetic engineering techniques, another meritless and witless exercise. Although their shoppers guide doesn’t mention genetic engineering (GE) specifically, thanks to Hansen CR is known for its anti-GE demagoguery, and the guide furthers that cause. CR’s October 2014 report, “Where GMOs [genetically modified organisms] hide in your food,” quoted Hansen as saying, “There hasn’t been enough research to determine whether GMOs are harmful to people. But scientists around the world agree that GMOs have the potential to introduce allergens and create other unintended changes that may affect health.” This statement could reflect Hansen’s profound ignorance of plant biology, his disdain for accuracy, or his predilection for spouting propaganda. Most likely, it’s all three.

For one thing, genetic modification has been accomplished for centuries by a seamless continuum of technologies. The high precision and predictability of the newer molecular techniques make plant breeding surer and safer; in fact, they are actually being used to remove common and dangerous allergens from foods such as peanuts. In addition, the use of the newer techniques will reduce dramatically the likelihood of mishaps, such as the ill-fated Lenape potato, seen with older methods of plant breeding.

To put Hansen’s statement into context, consider that since the 1930′s plant breeders have performed “wide cross” hybridizations, in which large numbers of “alien” genes are moved across what used to be thought of as “natural breeding boundaries” to create plant varieties that cannot and do not exist in nature. In these hybridizations, which are performed between organisms of different species or genera, the parental plants may be sufficiently compatible to produce a viable zygote but not compatible enough to permit the normal embryo or endosperm development that would result in a mature plant. Scientists devised ingenious mechanical and biochemical ways to “rescue” the embryos and make them viable, and common commercial crops derived from wide crosses include tomato, potato, sweet potato, oat, rice, wheat, corn and pumpkin, among others.

Wide-cross hybridizations and radiation-induced mutagenesis represent far more drastic “tinkering with Nature,” and create far greater attendant uncertainty about the results than the modern molecular techniques.

Let’s consider a real-world example, the manmade species Triticum agropyrotriticum, which was created by wide-cross hybridization from the combination of bread wheat and quackgrass (also known as couchgrass). The entire genome of quackgrass was transferred haphazardly into wheat. This new crop could, at least in theory, pose several types of problems because it takes an established plant variety, wheat, and introduces tens of thousands of foreign genes into it. Hypothetical concerns include the potential for increased invasiveness of the plant and the possibility that quackgrass-derived proteins could be toxic or allergenic for some humans. But neither regulators nor the Hansens or Benbrooks have evinced any concern about these possibilities. Plant varieties like T. agropyrotriticum, which harbor “foreign” genes and are indeed “genetically modified” according to any reasonable definition, are subject to no mandatory testing or review before entering the food chain. In contrast, if a single gene from quackgrass (or any other organism) were introduced into wheat using modern, precise molecular genetic engineering techniques, the resulting variety would be subject to hugely expensive—and increasingly biased and politicized—regulation. And inevitably, they would be targeted by activists.

As regulators approve more genetically engineered foods available directly to consumers–like the non-browning Arctic apples and bruise-resistant and reduced-carcinogen Innate potatoes (both of which were cleared by FDA on March 20) which will join Hawaiian papayas in markets–Consumer Reports’ distorted view of them would be reflected in the shopping guide.

The 2014 CR report instructs, “[Y]our primary goal is to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables—ideally five or more servings a day—even if it’s a type that falls into our very high-risk category.” Very high-risk category? It’s more like a bogeyman from Hansen’s bad dreams.

Consumer Reports has become a promoter of junk science, disseminating insupportable organic hype masquerading as useful, unbiased information.

Kavin Senapathy is a freelance writer and science popularizer in Madison, Wisconsin. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy & Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @henryimiller.

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