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's doctrine, 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 now biotechnology, require too much land.
Avery sees no problem with agricultural pollution, be it groundwater contamination, pesticide and fertilizer runoff, poisonings of fish and wildlife, or even the mountains of stinking manure produced by the huge cattle, chicken, and hog operations that plague increasing numbers of rural communities. Nor, Avery insists, is there any link between cancer or other illnesses and pesticides. But, he thunders, organic food can certainly kill you.
Avery claims 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, and animal manure is a known carrier of this nasty microbe. He claims his data comes from Dr. Paul Mead, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the federal agency that tracks outbreaks of foodborne illness.
Despite a public debunking of his statements in the New York Times in February last year, Avery continues delivering his message with op-eds like "The Silent Killer in Organic Foods" and "Wallace Institute Got it Wrong: CDC Data Does Indicate Higher Risk From Organic and Natural Foods," dutifully disseminated 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. Bridge News took over Knight-Ridder and a number of financial news services and data providers and is now the number-one financial data provider in the U.S. and number two internationally.
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 when they denied having any data attributing E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks to organic food. He accused CDC of 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 entitled "Organic Food Creates Higher Risk for Food Poisoning" is posted by the US Newswire on August 25, 1999, on USDA's National Food Safety Database. Though this story doesn't quote Avery, it has the CDC's Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases chief Robert Tauxe saying "organic food means a food was grown in animal manure."
Dr. Tauxe denies making that statement and says he believes the rumor started with Avery. The CDC fielded so many media queries on the subject, on January 14, 1999, it took the unusual step 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 saying the CDC was the source of Avery's charge and recounts that Avery told him "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 after Avery asked for it.
Absolute bunk, says Mead. "What happened is that he called me up and announced that 8 or 12 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 was still sourcing this phantom data back to him
The irony of Avery's claim is that E. coli 0157:H7 contamination from manure is more likely to occur in the industrial farming system that he promotes, says Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer and board chairman of the private organic certification company Farm Verified Organic. Considering that the cow-to-human waste ratio is about 10 to one, a feedlot of, say, 5,000 head of cattle, would produce the same amount of fecal matter 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 the requirement is being written into USDA's proposed rules.
Dr. Robert Elder, a research microbiologist until recently with 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, because Elder's soon-to-be published research shows that in the summertime, when E. coli 0157:H7 levels peak in cattle, 80 to 100 percent of the feedlot cattle he and his partner, Dr.Jim Keen, measured carried the deadly 0157:H7 strain.
Despite Avery's bogus claims, this story continues to spread and gain 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. His most public performance to-date was a recent appearance in an "investigation" of organic food on ABC's newsmagazine 20/20 by John Stossel, himself a Born Again anti-government free marketeer.
The story has also made its way to Canada and Europe, under headlines like "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." Other versions of the attack on organics are coming under the wing of the E. coli rumor. The Sunday Times of London recently printed "Warning: organic food can seriously damage your health," which claimed that processed organic food had substantially higher fat, salt and sugar, and organic growers used "natural" but highly toxic alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Avery's propaganda has also been cited by pro-biotech scientists in congressional testimony, and he has been referenced in what many people consider to be science's most prestigious journal, Nature.
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 questioned 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, he 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, meanwhile, 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 sacking him. Referring to his time working for the U.S. 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 says 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. And 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. For his mission is their mission.
Karen Charman of Shandaken, N.Y. is an investigative journalist specializing in agricultural, environmental and health issues. This article originally appeared in the fourth quarter 1999 issue of PR Watch. For more information see the PR Watch web site at www.prwatch.org or the Organic Consumers Association web site at www.purefood.org.