Since this issue has come up repeatedly here on SANET, I wanted to
make sure that you all saw this piece from the current (fourth
quarter 1999) issue of /PR Watch/. It addresses Dennis Avery's bunkum
about /E. coli/ in organic foods.
Note that this is copyrighted information, and is reprinted here with
permission. To secure permission to reprint this article in various
media, contact the editors of /PR Watch/:
/PR Watch'/s Web site is at:
Saving the Planet With Pestilent Statistics
by Karen Charman
PR Watch, Volume 6, No. 4: Fourth Quarter 1999
(Reprinted with permission; all rights reserved)
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
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
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
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.
Copyright 1999 The Center for Media and Democracy
All rights reserved
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