Apple juice-arsenic flap puts Dr. Oz in cross-hairs

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dr oz apple juice
Wikimedia Commons / Getty Images
(CBS/AP) Call it the sippy cup saga. Dr. Memhet Oz says apple juice contains potentially dangerous levels of arsenic, but the FDA and other medical experts say the popular TV doctor is all wet.

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"There is no evidence of any public health risk from drinking these juices," the agency said on its website. "And FDA has been testing them for years."

A sticky situation got even stickier on Thursday, when Dr. Richard Besser scolded him on "Good Morning America" for what Besser called an "extremely irresponsible" report that was akin to "yelling 'Fire!' in a movie theater."

Besser headed the CDC before joining ABC news as health and medical editor several years ago.

Arsenic occurs naturally in water, air, food and soil in two forms. The FDA says organic arsenic is essentially harmless because it quickly passes through the body. Inorganic arsenic - the type in pesticides - can cause cancer if consumed at high levels or over a long period.

"The Dr. Oz Show" did not break down the type when it tested juice samples. As a result, the FDA said, the results are misleading. And the agency's tests found lower total arsenic levels from one of the same juice batches the Oz show tested - 2 to 6 parts per billion of arsenic versus the 36 that Oz's show had claimed.

Tests of the same batch conducted by two food-testing labs for the juice's maker, Nestle USA, which sells Juicy Juice under the Gerber brand, also found levels consistent with the FDA results.

In a letter published on the Oz show's website, Nestle said it told the program's producer in advance that the method the show's lab used was intended for testing waste water, not fruit juice, and "therefore their results would be unreliable at best." The FDA also sent a letter in advance to the show and threatened to post its findings and the letters online if the program proceeded.

Oz went ahead.

"American apple juice is made from apple concentrate, 60 percent of which is imported from China," the website version of his report says. "Other countries may use pesticides that contain arsenic, a heavy metal known to cause cancer."

Tim Sullivan, a spokesman for Oz's show, said in an interview: "We don't think the show is irresponsible. We think the public has a right to know what's in their foods."

Sullivan said Oz does not agree that organic arsenic is as safe as authorities say it is. The show will do further tests to distinguish organic from inorganic arsenic in juice samples, he said.

"The position of the show is that the total arsenic needs to be lower," he said. "We did the tests. We stand by the results and we think the standards should be different."

In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, even Oz said he wouldn't hesitate to keep giving his four children apple juice.

"There's no question in my mind folks can continue drinking apple juice. ... There have been no cases at all of kids being harmed by elevated levels of arsenic, and the kinds of numbers we are talking about are not high enough to cause acute injury," he said.

He said he was concerned instead about the possible ill effects from drinking apple juice for many years.

What's the bottom line? Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University and an outspoken critic of iffy medical advice appearing in the media, said Dr. Oz's dubious warning about apple juice had an upside. On his blog, Neurologica, he wrote on Friday, "The Dr Oz show did raise an important issue - health fear mongering and irresponsible reporting for ratings by medical celebrities."

  • David W Freeman

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