Cheese Powder and Other Hobgoblins: A Double Standard in Risk Reporting

When a company claims its products are safe, journalists are rightly skeptical. Why do alarmist claims from environmental groups get a free pass?

Imagine a news story about a study that detected trace amounts of an industrial chemical in a popular food. The funder of that research claims it shows good news, that the doses of the chemical we’re exposed to aren’t high enough to worry about. But the funder was the chemical industry. That would set off all sorts of alarms about the honesty of that research, right? And it should, for you and for the reporter.

On both sides, organizations paid for research that supported their point of view. Both should prompt equal skepticism in you, and certainly in the reporter, right?

viewpoints

Now imagine a story about a study that detected trace amounts of that industrial chemical in popular foods or in drinking water, and the sponsors of that research claim that the findings show bad news, that the doses are high enough to pose a serious threat to human health. But that research was funded by environmental advocacy groups. Same situation, right? In both cases, organizations with points of view paid for research that produced findings that supported their point of view. That should prompt the same skepticism in you, and certainly in the reporter, right?

Well, it should. But often in cases like this, it doesn’t. As two recent examples illustrate, there is a dangerous double standard in news coverage of environmental and public health risks. Research funded by industry, playing down the risk, almost always prompts appropriate skepticism and challenge. Research by public health and environmental advocates, almost invariably playing up the risk, almost never does.

The first story, “The Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese,” was published on The New York Times’ Well site on July 12. It reported that a study of 30 cheese products (solid cheese, cheese slices, the cheese powders that come in packets in macaroni-and-cheese boxes) detected trace levels of phthalates in all but one sample. Phthalates are industrial chemicals that have long been a subject of environmental groups’ alarms: Research suggests phthalates are endocrine disruptors — chemicals that interfere with our sensitive hormone system, potentially causing health problems in newborns and infants.

The story begins, “Potentially harmful chemicals that were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago may still be present in high concentrations in your child’s favorite meal.” The language “high concentrations” is taken right out of the research funders’ summary. It needed to be questioned, but it wasn’t. The decade-old ban covers only products with phthalate concentrations of 0.1 percent or higher, and the highest concentration detected in the study samples was 0.0002523 percent.

Of course, one might fairly question the appropriateness of comparing chemical concentrations found in toys and those found in food, particularly given that some of the levels found in cheese actually exceed federal guidelines for things like bottled drinking water — arguably a more apples-to-apples comparison. But neither the advocates nor the journalist bothered to even make that case. 

Moreover, when the story provides a link to the “study,” you are taken not to the research itself but to a summary written by an advocacy group, the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging. The summary starts with several paragraphs warning about the danger from phthalates, and only then describes the study itself. And the summary even includes a link to a website called “KleanUpKraft.” That fact alone should have been a red flag to The Times; it might have prompted the reporter to note that the funders of the research chose the cheese products to send to a lab for analysis, and out of the vast range of cheese products on the market, one-third of the samples they chose just happened to be Kraft products. While it’s true that Kraft is a major player in the global cheese market, this so-called research is a clear case of advocacy masquerading as science to advance a point of view. It cries out for some reasonable journalistic skepticism. The story contains none. (The Times did not respond to my requests for comment.)

Example two: the coverage of the Environmental Working Group’s release of a ZIP-code-searchable database of industrial chemicals that have been detected in trace amounts in public drinking water supplies. Widespread coverage ran under headlines like “Is Your Drinking Water Full of Dangerous Chemicals?,” “Is Your Drinking Water Safe?,” and “Cancer-Causing Pollutants Found in Mamaroneck Drinking Water, Study Shows.” All 18 versions of the story I read emphasized the EWG’s worrisome claim that many of these industrial chemicals have been associated with cancer and various other health problems.

While all the stories identified EWG as an environmental group, not one challenged its sweeping claims that at any dose at all, any of these chemicals can cause harm — even though in almost all cases, the levels were below state and/or federal safety levels. An advocate might reasonably point out that some of the chemicals measured are unregulated altogether, but the fact remains that the prima facie assumption of harm is a gigantic leap beyond what any respectable toxicologist or epidemiologist will tell you. Dose matters, not only to whether a substance causes any harm, but to what kind of harm, and how much. Yet every story merely accepted and repeated the worst-case interpretation of the science, the interpretation of an avowed advocate. Any reporter would surely have challenged this research had it been done by corporations claiming that it showed a reassuringly low potential for harm.


Why do journalists raise concern about the reliability of science when it’s financed by corporations and industry, but not when the funders are environmental or public health advocates — who of course are also trying to advance their cause, honorable as it may be? The likely explanation is trust. We instinctively trust those we perceive to be on our side, and mistrust those who aren’t. Environmental and public health groups may have their own agendas, but they are on our side, the public’s side. Corporations and industry are on their own side, and selfishly put their profit above public interest.

Reporting that fails to apply reasonable skepticism to claims of risk and danger leaves us more afraid than the evidence suggests we need to be.

I made the same gullible mistakes during my years as an environmental reporter, for the same reason. But such journalistic imbalance can do real harm. Reporting that fails to apply reasonable skepticism to the scientific claims of environmental and public health advocates — claims that generally play up risk and danger — leaves us more afraid of some things than the evidence suggests we need to be: genetically modified food, radiation and nuclear power, industrial chemicals. All of these things pose some risk, but not nearly as much as the most adamant advocates claim. Excessive fears lead to choices and behaviors that can have significant and harmful impact, both for us as individuals and for society. Fear of radiation that vastly exceeds the actual risk, for example, fuels opposition to nuclear energy, which emits no greenhouse gases and could help in the fight against climate change.

We need better from our science and environmental and health journalists. We rely on them to keep us informed about threats to our health and safety, so we can make the most intelligent evidence-based choices about how to keep ourselves healthy and safe. Stories like “The Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese” and “Is Your Drinking Water Full of Dangerous Chemicals?” don’t help.


David Ropeik is an author and risk-perception consultant assisting businesses, governments, nonprofits, and other organizations in their understanding of human perceptions of risk, and in navigating the challenges of effective risk communication. A full list of his current and former clients can be found here.

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6 comments / Join the Discussion

    /* When a company claims its products are safe, journalists are rightly skeptical. Why do alarmist claims from environmental groups get a free pass? */

    Because alarmists are those ones who run and propagate their own business there – so that journalists just assume conflict of interest again. It’s not about double standards but about consistency in thinking instead.

    Reply

    This is a very timely article. There are especially disturbing trends that are causing significant problems related to this topic. One of the central problems is that the “studies” are not actual peer-reviewed science with complete methods and basis for reproducibility. These are often times improperly conducted trials, or implementation of generic techniques that provide false positives (well “signal” that is actually below the limit of detection).

    The most egregious is the claims of detecting glyphosate, an herbicide under strong activist criticism because of its use with GE crops. They feel that they can hurt the companies and farmers by ending use of this herbicide. It has been questionably rated as a “probable carcinogen” by the IARC, despite no evidence of it being carcinogenic.

    There are a number of reports claiming to find it in urine, blood, beer, wine, organic food, and dozens of popular consumer products. No methods are provided, and the amounts claimed are less than 1 part per billion (a second in 32 years). But the news calls it “Cancer Causing Herbicide in Your Food”.

    Emails obtained by Stephan Niedenbach reveal Henry Rowlands (anti-GE activist) soliciting for places to detect glyphosate and his quotation was, “It does not need to be accurate, we just need to detect it.”

    That line shows the problem. It does not matter if it is real, it does not matter if it is reproducible or publishable. It simply needs to be not zero.

    That’s how they manufacture risk where none exists. And reporters fall for it.

    Reply

    I do not agree with the assumption that “Environmental and public health groups” are on the public’s side, many times they are not. The activist industry is itself an industry – and often a well-paid career choice. in my experience in agricultural science, these groups often have a reckless disregard for facts that don’t align with their world view, and are willing to fund and promote bad science and attack anyone that speaks up defend evidence-based science that conflicts with that world view.

    Reply

    I generally agree with the need stated here to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism when assessing risks, whenever it is reported without open attribution. (Bias and vested interest are rampant in all areas.) Point well taken.
    But this gave me pause:
    “Fear of radiation that vastly exceeds the actual risk, for example, fuels opposition to nuclear energy, which emits no greenhouse gases and could help in the fight against climate change.”
    What? You cannot seriously dismiss that fear as being as irrational, say, as that of GMOs or vaccines.
    All energy sources have known as well as unknown cost-benefit trade-offs, but surely nuclear power’s costs – Fukushima and Chernobyl come to mind – are a huge trade-off for the dubious benefit of lowering greenhouse gases. I hope the science community, not to mention society at large, doesn’t use climate change as an excuse to turn to nuclear power, especially when so many advances are being made in less dangerous alternatives to fossil fuels. And let us not forget the most overlooked/underplayed way of dealing with limited energy: reduction in use combined with energy-efficiency! Human beings will take huge risks to accommodate their need for growth rather than simply cut back.

    Reply

    Louise,
    It stunned me too when I first learned it several years ago, but it turns out that nuclear (ionizing) radiation is nowhere near the health risk we have come to accept. We know this from studying the A bomb survivors who got all sorts of high medium and low doses, and who had a lifetime increase in cancer death rate of less than 1%, and no genetic damage passed to their children. See https://aeon.co/ideas/fear-of-radiation-is-more-dangerous-than-radiation-itself

    Reply

    While accidents such as Fukushima and Chernobyl are horrifying, the coal industry is also responsible for massive environmental damage and destruction of health, albeit on a slower scale. I would like to see a comparison of lives lost as a direct result of these two forms of energy production, as well as the environmental cost of each. I’m inclined to think that coal may not come out as well as some might think and yet it is considered one of the safer of the non-renewable forms of energy production.

    Reply
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