Sep 16 2011

Oz Gets Taken to Task Over Apple Juice

It certainly is encouraging to see a health reporter doing some actual no-nonsense health reporting – trying to bring some perspective and meaningful science to the public. ABC News Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser did just that when he took Dr. Mehmet Oz to task over his recent reporting about arsenic in apple juice. On Good Morning America Besser did not pull any punches – he accused Oz of fear-mongering, irresponsible reporting, and using bad science to scare his audience. There was no false balance or weasel words, it was all very refreshing.

The issue is over the safety of apple juice, a staple in the diet of many American children. The Oz Show did a segment where they reported that they found levels of arsenic in some brands of apple juice that exceed the safety levels for drinking water. Here are their results:

Minute Maid Apple Juice

Lowest Sample for Arsenic: 2 parts per billion

Highest Sample for Arsenic: 3 parts per billion

Apple and Eve Apple Juice

Lowest Sample for Arsenic: 3 parts per billion

Highest Sample for Arsenic: 11 parts per billion


Lowest Sample for Arsenic: 4 parts per billion

Highest Sample for Arsenic: 16 parts per billion

Juicy Juice

Lowest Sample for Arsenic: 2 parts per billion

Highest Sample for Arsenic: 22 parts per billion


Lowest Sample for Arsenic: 3 parts per billion

Highest Sample for Arsenic: 36 parts per billion

The EPA limit for drinking water is 10 parts per billion. There is no official limit for apple juice. Sounds scary – a dangerous toxin in the apple juice we are giving to our children.

Now here is the context viewers of the Oz show did not get. The FDA monitors levels of arsenic in juice products. If the level of total arsenic is less that 23 ppb then the product is considered safe. Oz says the level of safety should not be higher than for drinking water, but the reason for this is simple – people drink more water than juice, and water is used in the processing of many foods. The levels are determined by overall consumption.

Further, there are two types of arsening, organic (which is safe) and inorganic (which is toxic). The levels above refer only to total arsenic. When the FDA finds more than 23 ppb total arsenic in a juice product they then do the more complicated test for inorganic arsenic to make sure that is below safety levels. The total arsenic, therefore, is just a screening test, and high levels are only meaningful when the total level is then broken down into organic and inorganic.

The bottom line is that the FDA monitors arsenic levels in the juice products in the US and the levels have been below the safety limits. The Dr. Oz show did their own tests, found levels that are almost entirely below the safety threshold used by the FDA (except the high end of one product), did not compare to another lab, and then arbitrarily decided to compare these levels to the safety limits of drinking water (without explaining the difference) in order to manufacture a non-existent health concern.

It’s no wonder that Dr. Besser was concerned about the reporting of Dr. Oz. Irresponsible fear-mongering seems like an appropriate description.

What makes the reporting worse is that the FDA contacted the Dr. Oz show warning them that their reporting would be irresponsible. Here are the letters from the FDA. The FDA did their own testing, and found lower levels than the lab used by the Dr. Oz show – below that of even the safety limits for water. They further explained the difference between organic and inorganic arsenic and how that factors into their safety monitoring. The Dr. Oz show apparently ignored all this, and chose instead to contrive a scare, leaving out all the information necessary to put the facts into their proper context.

Oz, in the face of Besser’s harsh but appropriate criticism, retreated to the position that bad reporters often retreat to – I was just trying to start a conversation. In other words, don’t trust my conclusions, I just wanted to toss the issue out there, not present a definitive treatment of the issue. He just want to “bring clarity” to the issue – but instead he has just muddied the waters. This is a lame cop-out. In my opinion, the Dr. Oz show blew it. Not only did they do a terrible job of reporting this issue, they appear to have gone out of their way to manufacture a fear out of nothing. Dr. Oz is doing some further retreating, saying that he is not concerned about the short term safety of apple juice, but rather the safety of long term exposure to arsenic. And this concern is based on…nothing, apparently, expect his attempt to save face  in the aftermath of this abject failure.

My advice to Dr. Besser is to not back off. You are in the right on this issue, and you are just doing your job by exposing the blatant fear-mongering of Dr. Oz. The Dr. Oz show did raise an important issue – health fear mongering and irresponsible reporting for ratings by medical celebrities.

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