a junkscience.com production

The Consumer ReportsŪ Watchdog

Consumer Distorts
The Consumer Reports Watchdog




    Breast Cancer
    Global Warming
    Hormone Mimics
    Pet Food
    Trial Lawyers

Message Boards












































Consumer Reports blasted by 
one of its own

April 20, 1999

Brian Ross
Chief Investigative Reporter, 20/20
157 Columbus Ave.
New York, NY 10023

Your "expose" last night on the Consumer Reports baby bottle story was the worst news magazine segment I've ever seen. I say this as someone who worked at CR for 12 years and knows something about the place. You were suckered (all too willingly, I'm sure) by Consumers Union and gave CU's irresponsible story even wider publicity. Let's count just a few of the ways you screwed up:

  • Your lead-in footage of CR's testing laboratories--washing machines whirling, technicians toiling--indicated to viewers that the baby-bottle testing was done by CU staffers at company headquarters in Yonkers, NY. But as you presumably knew (or could have learned, if you were curious enough to ask), the testing was actually done at a lab in London, England--a mere 3,000 miles from Yonkers. Why did they choose to do the testing over there? If you'd pursued that angle, you might have ended up with a genuinely intriguing story rather than the scare-of-the-month embarrassment you presided over.

  • You bought into the basic premise of the CR story: that Dr. Frederick vom Saal's work on bisphenol-A and lab animals is valid. And you dismissed as "industry sponsored" the follow-up studies that failed to replicate vom Saal's findings. (At least you mentioned those other studies, which the CR article failed to do.) Most journalists, on learning that a researcher's findings can't be replicated, become leery about reporting those findings. A good reporter may even think, 'Maybe my guy is wrong and the real story lies with what the other researchers have found.' But not you. Why bother doing some investigative reporting when CU's Ned Groth has been kind enough to tell you what the real story is?

  • Has Dr. vom Saal published any of his crucially important findings in a peer-reviewed journal? That's a basic question to ask when working on a health-related story--especially when you're pretty much relying on the claims of one researcher to scare the entire nation. Such information is not hard to find--just check the National Library of Medicine's web site. When reporting a story so dependent on one researcher's conclusions, most journalists would feel uncomfortable if the researcher has a scanty publications output. But not you. Had you bothered checking, you would have found that Dr. vom Saal has published exactly three studies on bisphenol-A's effects on lab animals. He was listed as principal author on only one of those studies.

  • What about those "industry-sponsored" studies? They not only failed to find a problem with bisphenol-A but apparently used larger numbers of test animals than Dr. vom Saal did. Even assuming (as you clearly did) that any industry-sponsored study is bound to be biased, studies using a larger numbers of subjects yields results that have greater statistical power--are more scientifically valid--than studies with fewer subjects. You chose to ignore these studies in favor of Dr. vom Saal's less valid but scarier findings.

  • And what about Dr. vom Saal himself? Viewers might have been interested to know that he was scheduled to defend his findings just last week at a meeting of the Toxicology Forum in Washington, D.C and that he backed out at the last minute, apparently out of concern that his claims couldn't stand up to scrutiny. According to the junk science web site www.junkscience.com (yes, your story fully meets the definition of junk science), "The president of the Forum publicly upbraided vom Saal" for his failure to show up.

In your zeal to be sensationalistic (TV journalism sure doesn't get much better than dire threats to infants), you not only scared millions of people unnecessarily, but you managed to overlook the real story: the transmogrification of CU over the past 10 years from an organization that helped to educate the public about what was truly risky and what wasn't...to a group determined to scare people about risks that in reality pose negligible or nonexistent dangers. This lamentable evolution is largely the handiwork of your partner in baby-bottle bashing, Dr. Ned Groth.

One more thing, Mr. Ross: Did you ever ask Dr. Groth what might happen if all the infants now using plastic baby bottles were to switch to glass, an option you offer in your report? I have a 14-month-old infant who delights in throwing his bottle from his stroller and high chair and probably does so 10 or 12 times a day. I guarantee you: A lot of cuts, gouges and overall bloodletting will occur when thousands of these bottles start breaking. Some might even argue that the all-too-predictable risk from using glass bottles outweighs the entirely hypothetical risk of using unbreakable plastic bottles containing bisphenol-A.

Don't feel bad about not asking that question: It's just one of many omissions in a really sloppy reporting job. But hey--you got the lead story last night, and what can be wrong with that?


Larry Katzenstein

cc: Victor Neufeld, executive producer

Consumerdistorts.com is not affiliated with Consumer Reports®, Consumerreports.org or Consumers Union.
Material presented on this page represents the opinion of Consumerdistorts.com.Material copyrighted by others is used either with permission or under a claim of "fair use."
Copyright © 1999 Consumerdistorts.com. All rights reserved on original works.