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The New Naturalism : Controversy Eats at 'Diet for a Poisoned Planet'

November 29, 1990|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The author of a controversial book about food and water contamination claims an industry-sponsored campaign used slanderous tactics to discredit his recent publication. Others say the negative outcry, regardless of origin, is scientifically justified.

Either way, David Steinman's "Diet for a Poisoned Planet" (Harmony: $21.95) has generated more criticism than any other book of its kind. The phrases used to describe the work include "trash," "harmful to the health of any consumer" and "alarmist."

Steinman became a target because he painted a bleak picture of how pesticide residues, chemical contaminants and other toxins are pervasive in the environment. He writes, for instance, that "just eating the foods and drinking the water of late twentieth century America can kill you."

A surprisingly diverse collection of groups have gone on record against the author, including the Bush Administration, the American Dietetic Assn., the American Cancer Society, the Alliance for Food and Fiber, the American Council on Science and Health, and former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, who wrote "I was amazed that any publisher would publish such trash."

"It's remarkable how much effort food and chemical industries are making to squelch this book," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Steinman made a sincere effort to alert people to problems in the food supply and--whether or not I agree with him--those problems deserve discussion and should not be shoved under the carpet by the food industry."

Even before national distribution of the book's 40,000 copies began, California Raisin Advisory Board lawyers requested that it be halted because Steinman "misled" readers when describing raisins as "a highly pesticide-saturated food."

Freshwater fish, processed meats, dairy products and conventionally grown produce are other foods considered dangerous by Steinman. "Cows, pigs and other animals raised for slaughter concentrate toxins in their flesh from all the food they eat--thousands of plants laced with chemical pesticides," the book states.

Portions of "Poisoned Planet" use red, yellow and green lights to characterize the safety of individual foods. Some red-light victims: peanuts, bacon, hot dogs, veal, swordfish, lobster, eel, butter, milk chocolate, cheese, ice cream and whole milk.

And in his most ambitious leap, Steinman maintains that diabetes, cancer, Parkinson's, Alzheimers and other diseases are the "consequences" of exposure to chemical residues in foods.

Critics complain that he writes about the total number of residues on certain foods, but he doesn't discuss the actual level of these compounds present. For instance, using federal data Steinman states that as many as 97 chemical residues were found on 16 different peach samples between the years 1982 and 1986. Yet he does not say at what level these compounds were detected nor how many were found on each piece of fruit. Neither is any mention made of whether the residues were present in parts per million or parts per billion. (The federal government establishes Acceptable Daily Intake levels for each pesticide permitted for use on foods.)

In a recent interview, Steinman stood by all the controversial claims made in his book and came armed with volumes of data to support his contentions. He also tape-recorded the session--for his "protection," he said.

Asked why he thinks "Poisoned Planet" has generated so much criticism, Steinman said it was because his approach to the subject differs from that of scientists. "I've painted food safety on a much larger canvas than scientists, who lose control of the subject when you paint food safety as a political and moral issue," he said. "They (scientists) want to place (the debate) on risk alone but they do not deal with the issue in its entirety."

Steinman was unrepentant about his use of terms such as "drenched in pesticides," even though virtually all pesticide residues in food are found in parts per million or parts per billion.

" 'Saturated with pesticides' is correct, exactly," he said. "There are lots of safe foods and a few bad actors that I have highlighted (in the book). . . . I'm here to say that not all foods are created equal. There are clear patterns of contamination."

Although there are no known causes or cures for Alzheimer's disease, Steinman stands by his book's claim that the presence of aluminum in cookware, foods and medicine "may play the decisive role in the onset of Alzheimer's."

"I'm not aware of any nutritive value of aluminum in foods," Steinman said. "No one has acquitted aluminum as a contributor to Alzheimer's. It may not be a sole cause . . . but what's the difference?"

On the link between industrial pollution and pesticides triggering the onset of diabetes, Steinman said he could not give references for the association "off hand." Nor did any diabetes research reference appear for the chapter in which the illness was discussed.

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