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ABC to correct report on organic foods

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NEW YORK — ABC News said Monday that a report challenging the assumed benefits of organic food was partly based on research that did not exist. It said it would make a correction on Friday night's "20/20" program.

In the report, the correspondent John Stossel said research commissioned by ABC News showed that conventional produce did not necessarily have more pesticide residue than did organic produce.

"Our tests, surprisingly, found no pesticide residue on the conventional samples or the organic," he said in the report first broadcast on Feb. 4 and again on July 7.

But the two researchers who were commissioned to do the testing — Dr. Michael Doyle, a scientist with the University of Georgia, and Dr. Lester Crawford, director of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Georgetown University — said they had never tested produce for pesticide residue for ABC.

In a statement released Monday night, ABC confirmed that pesticide tests were never performed on produce. But it steered blame away from Stossel. "In making that statement, Mr. Stossel was relying on inaccurate information that had been provided to him," it said.

Executives said David Fitzpatrick, producer of the segment, was responsible for the error, and they were trying to determine how it appeared. But, they said, they believed it was an honest mistake and did not think Fitzpatrick would be disciplined. Stossel will make the correction.

Top ABC News executives began looking into potential problems with the report two weeks ago, after The New York Times addressed them in an article.

But it was not the first time the issue had been raised with ABC News. Problems with the report were first brought to light by the members of the Environmental Working Group, which supports the consumption of organic food. They had learned that Stossel's assertion about the pesticide tests was in error after speaking with the researchers.

They apprised Stossel of their findings in a letter dated Feb. 8. They were answered by Fitzpatrick, who, in a letter, asserted that ABC did, indeed, test produce for pesticide residue. After the report was rerun, Stossel re-emphasized the pesticide assertion.

Executives at ABC, a unit of Walt Disney, said they were trying to determine why the group's assertion about the supposed pesticide tests was not properly addressed when it was first raised.

The Environmental Working Group also contended that Stossel's report had inappropriately implied that ABC's tests had detected dangerous strains of E. coli bacteria in the organic food when, in fact, the tests did not establish the presence of the dangerous type of E. coli.

Executives said they were still looking into that accusation.