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Lots of chatter, anger over Stanford organic food study

September 12, 2012|By Rosie Mestel
  • A study comparing organic and conventionally grown food has caused an uproar.
A study comparing organic and conventionally grown food has caused an uproar. (David Karp / For the Los Angeles…)

What to do if you don’t like/disagree with the findings of a scientific study? For some, it appears that the answer is to start a petition to have the study retracted, and to accuse the researchers of bias and being in the pay of nefarious industry concerns.

After days of heated reaction to a study published last week about organic foods, north of 2,900 people have signed the petition, at change.org, calling for the paper to be withdrawn.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the report by Stanford University scientists, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine:

The researchers pooled together studies addressing the health benefits of organic and conventionally grown foods.  Nutritionwise, they didn’t find many differences in the more than 200 reports they looked at. But they did find some evidence of higher blood levels of pesticide residues among children who ate conventionally grown food, and they noted that while organic and conventionally grown food put people at equal risk for food-borne illnesses, antibiotic-resistant microbes are more commonly found among conventionally reared chicken and pork.

Insidious stuff!

Now to the change.org petition, which states in part:

“The fatally flawed Stanford study claiming that organic food is the same as conventional … failed to examine key food issues such as the use of GMOs, high-fructose corn syrup, mercury in the food supply, and countless other factors. Stanford University has also been found to have deep financial ties to Cargill, a powerful proponent of genetically engineered foods and an enemy of GMO labeling Proposition 37.”

And elsewhere: “It is essential that we make enough waves within the media to force Stanford and the mainstream media to issue a retraction.”

In the moments left before our appointment to be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, a little review:

The article focused specifically on health aspects of organic food versus conventional food;  in an interview, the first author said that she and the senior coauthor, both doctors, often get asked by their patients if eating organic food is healthier, so they decided to look at it.

The scientists weren’t studying genetically modified foods (though if GMO foods were in the conventional data, one might think that GMO-caused health factors would have revealed themselves in the results). And they weren’t studying high-fructose corn syrup -- they were only reviewing fruits, vegetables, eggs, grains, dairy, poultry and meat. Not processed foods.

The article, in other words, wasn’t about the entirety of everything that people think is wrong about the way our food is grown and produced today. It wasn’t even about every type of difference between organic and conventionally grown food.

And did we miss something -- or didn’t the authors actually report differences that come down in favor of organic food? Didn’t they write that antibiotic-resistant strains of microbes were more common in food from conventionally raised animals? Didn’t they say that pesticide residues were higher in children eating conventional foods? When they said that they didn’t know the health significance of the detected pesticide levels -- might that be because they didn’t know the health significance of the detected pesticide levels?

Or…. is something more sinister behind it all? The change.org petition (and various blogs have said similar things) calls one of the scientists on the research paper “a known statistical 'liar' for Big Tobacco companies” and says that he:

“worked with Stanford University to develop a 'multivariate' statistical algorithm, which is essentially a way to lie with statistics. This research ultimately became known as the 'Dr. Ingram Olkin multivariate Logistic Risk Function' and it was a key component in Big Tobacco's use of anti-science to attack whistleblowers and attempt to claim cigarettes are perfectly safe.”

We asked Jan de Leeuw, distinguished professor and chair of the UCLA department of statistics, to explain this mutivariate stuff to us.

De Leeuw first said the paper was nothing remarkable, no worse than others using meta-analysis -- though that he's not a big fan of meta-analysis because he thinks there are too many methodological problems with the technique.

He was puzzled by the uproar. He said he himself sees reasons other than nutrition to opt for organic foods, but even on the health side, “I think the conclusions are pretty good from the organic point of view,” he said. “I don’t understand why people get so worked up about it.”

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