I don’t love Consumer Reports

Eli — I’ve enjoyed your postings on a range of topics. But on your most recent one, I’m going to take you on. You said you’re a loyal subscriber to Consumer Reports. I’m not, and don’t intend to be. You also stated that “Consumer Reports, in fact, has probably done more to raise the overall quality of the things consumers buy more than any other single entity public or private.”

Oh no, I say. I would argue that the publication has a history of causing or contributing to significant consumer harm. I grant you that they generally do a good job in the laboratory testing products, but even there sometimes the criteria they use to rate those products is biased. For instance, in the past, in rating cars’ safety, CR included fuel economy as a criterion, which biased their results against larger, heavier — and safer — cars.

While heading a free-market consumer group for 12 years, I followed Consumer Reports carefully, as their pronouncements had and have a huge impact on public policy. Here are some examples of how Consumer Reports worked against consumers’ interest in distorting scientific findings and raising fears among consumers about products and technologies that offer significant consumer benefits. In many cases, CR has had a significant effect in restricting those products. Their pronouncements especially have caused consumers to avoid food products that were healthy and nutritious or to be fearful of technological advances that can improve health and safety.

–A federal court found that CR in its testing of the 1995-96 Isuzu Trooper had subjected the SUV to unnatural steering maneuvers that were different from those of other SUVs; as a result of those fake “tests,” CR featured a cover story (October 1996) charging that the Isuzu was dangerously prone to roll-over.

–CR warned parents (April 1999) about the dangers of chemicals leaching from plastic baby bottles, which provided grist for a “20/20” expose on April 19, 1999. CR’s story was debunked by Consumer Reports former science reporter, Larry Katzenstein, as well as numerous toxicologists.

–Katzenstein, after 12 years at CR, quit when the editors censored his article on the benefits of food irradiation, according to an op-ed by him in the NYT. [Don’t have the citation, but Larry soon after had given me a copy of the op-ed.] CR has long campaigned against that technology, which public health officials say could drastically reduce the levels of food-borne pathogens that cause thousands of debilitating illnesses each year.

–CR has also campaigned against agricultural biotechnology and miniscule traces of pesticides on produce. In fact, its “study” on pesticides prompted Dr. Bruce Ames, professor of biochemistry at University of California in Berkeley to declare: “This is nonsense.” Focusing on “minuscule” levels of pesticide residues, “is a distraction from something far more important — feeding kids fruits and vegetables that prevent cancer and other diseases.” [from a Consumer Alert article, not publicly available any longer].

–Just this January 2007, Consumer Reports published an article stating that “83% of chickens sold in U.S. grocery stores may be contaminated with dangerous bacteria including campylobacter and salmonella,” according to the American Council on Science and Health. ACSH notes that ”According to the USDA, this percentage is exaggerated and is the result of a seriously flawed ‘study.’ For one thing, the study only tested 525 chickens. This sample size is too small to effectively represent the entire U.S. supply of chicken. ‘There is virtually nothing or any conclusion that anyone could draw from 500 samples,’ said Steven Cohen, USDA spokesman. ‘They’re passing along junk science and calling it an investigation.’

–Perhaps the most famous and harmful cover article CR did was in 1989, which attacked the pesticide Alar used to keep apples from falling prematurely. On its cover CR portrayed a witch holding out a poisoned apple to a child. Their story kicked off nationwide hysteria among mothers. It was reported that one mother sent a policeman after the school-bus to retrieve her child’s possibly tainted apple from the lunchbox. Alar was cleared as a culprit, but it was taken off the market, apples sales plummeted, and apple farmers lost millions. People avoided this fruit for several years.

As to your question about why CR doesn’t drop its anti-market bias. I think it’s fairly simple — fear sells. And the policy positions of Consumers Union are closely intertwined with Consumer Reports. The need for more government regulation of products so they can be “perfectly safe” is an underlying theme.

No, I don’t “love Consumer Reports.”