A ratingsmaker learns to cope with controversy

In the process of reviewing thousands of products each year, Consumer Reports inevitably makes controversial decisions.

Indeed, the magazine has had several recent run-ins with the scientific community. Dr. Steven Milloy, founder of a Web site called "Consumer Distorts," claims the validity of some tests in Consumer Reports is affected by a left-wing ideology in the Consumers Union (CU).

"They mix all this stuff in," Dr. Milloy says, "so if you're just a man in the street, well, how are you going to know that their comments on plastics and biotech and chemicals and pesticides aren't as reliable as what they do on toasters?"

Other scientists complain that CU has been scaring people by alleging that rBGH, a genetically engineered hormone to increase milk production in cows, may spread so-called mad-cow disease in America. (There are no reported instances of the disease in the United States.)

But CU says that four of their staffers merely stated that, though it is possible that rBGH might increase a cow's susceptibility to the disease, "evidence to support this concern is very limited at this point, but it is a plausible question to pose."

Others haven't forgiven Consumer Reports for allegedly starting a public panic about the supposed dangers of Alar in apples or the use of pesticides in fruit and vegetables.

The Society of Toxicology in Reston, Va. (the world's largest organization of professional toxicologists), faulted the conclusions of a 1999 Consumer Reports study on pesticides. It noted that the "Toxicity Index" in the report did not "reflect the standard approaches used for toxicological risk assessments."

A CU spokesman, Linda Wagner, says the Index "reflects our expert judgment and it is fairly unique."

The American Council for Science and Health (ACSH), an association of scientists concerned that policies on health and environment should be based in sound science, is another critic. Elizabeth Whelan, its president, cites "a statement from the National Cancer Institute that says very clearly that they know of no evidence that the regulated, approved use of pesticides contributes to the toll of human cancer in the United States."

The CU points to the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site which says, "Laboratory studies show that pesticides can cause health problems."

"Advocating for consumer health and safety is not an ideological issue," says Ms. Karpatkin, responding to critics. "We have ... informed consumers on the health and safety risks they face on everything from child safety seats to SUVs to pesticides."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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