Back in September, I wrote an, um, slightly cranky post about Dr. Mehmet Oz’s self-proclaimed expose of arsenic levels in commercially produced apple juice in the United States.
It was but one of many notes in a then ongoing chorus of crankiness. Most of the criticism focused on the point that his test results didn’t differentiate organic arsenic from inorganic arsenic, the latter being about 500 times more poisonous than the former. Further the FDA had apparently unsuccessfully tried to educate him in this regard, as noted by coverage in places ranging from Forbes, (Dr. Oz Tries to be A Scientist) to Pharyngula (Dr. Oz Goes Too Far).
As I wrote at the time: “In a cranky, reluctant way, if you’re me, you have to kind of admire the way Dr. Oz responded to this concerted hiss of dismay. He continued to maintain that arsenic exposure should always be considered a big, bad thing. And he managed to suggest that this big picture was more important than nitpicking whining about things like test accuracy and arsenic classification. He did this well enough that, for instance, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, asked the FDA to take another look at arsenic levels in apple juice.”
And what happened with another look? Prompted by the debate, Consumer Reports did its own study and in late November confirmed what Dr. Oz had found – that arsenic levels in apple juice were over all too high. In fact, 25 percent of the samples tested had arsenic levels above the EPA limit for safe drinking water. Further, it turned out that while criticizing Dr. Oz’s results, the FDA had failed to publicly release all of its own data, some of which also found uncomfortably high levels.
“Dr. Oz Vindicated” was the headline on a recent story in The Atlantic. Dr. Richard Besser, the medical and health editor of ABC News, apologized for the earlier criticisms of Dr. Oz and pointedly complained about the FDA’s selective use of data. The FDA announced this week that it would expand its apple juice testing in response to the complaints.
So in this second look, Dr. Oz comes out sounding a lot better than the FDA.
Yes, I still think he would have been more effective if he’d been more meticulous in his testing methods. Yes, I still wish he’d used the opportunity to educate his audience on the range of arsenic risks. There would have been less backwash and more focus on what may be a very legitimate concern.
But at least he reported his all his results, unlike the FDA which appears to have withheld evidence to strength its side of the argument. Our government agencies do neither themselves not us any favors when they try to manage reality in this way, and agency’s behavior leaves it open to question to whether its primary concern is protecting consumers or corporations.
It’s not yet clear how much of a health risk exists here; all the levels reported are still relatively low. But it’s also true that arsenic is never a welcome food additive and that chronic exposure is linked to a host of illnesses.
In the end, Dr. Oz forced the government to reconsider the issue, to take a more serious look at arsenic contamination of juice drinks, which are primarily consumed by children. And for that, folks, he deserves a belated and non-cranky chorus of recognition.