Julia Child vs. Meryl Streep

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In a recent, totally outrageous interview published in the UK paper The Telegraph, actress Meryl Streep, star of Julie & Julia, maligns and misrepresents the real-life version of the character she plays, famed chef Julia Child.

And in the process she defames the organization I head up, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).

Ms. Streep actually calls Julia Child "a pawn of big business." You can hardly get more outrageous than that.

I knew Julia Child. Let me share with you the actual facts about her -- and ACSH.

I got to know Julia some 25 years ago because she was a friend and neighbor of my Harvard mentor, Dr. Fredrick J. Stare, Founder and Chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. Julia was no shrinking violet -- she was extremely outspoken. She had two major pet peeves:

•She despised people who demonized specific foods, like butter and sugar.

•She despised activists who terrified people about the safety of their food.

If I can recall the two most common statements that Julia would utter on these issues they were: "all foods are safe in moderation" and "food is to be enjoyed, not feared."

Ms. Streep attacks the memory of Julia Child by stating that Julia "resisted making a connection between the high-fat diet of heavily-laden cordon bleu-influenced cuisine and cholesterol levels." Nonsense. For Julia, there were no "good foods" or "bad foods" -- again, just a variety of foods, all in moderation -- including an occasional cordon bleu. Julia, unlike her fictional counterpart, exhibited a constant stream of common sense.

Ms. Streep, in the Telegraph interview, goes on to state that Julia was "in the thrall of something called the American Council on Science and Health, which was a front organization for a agro-businesses and petrochemical business. They seduced Julia into giving them money."

Here is the real deal: In the spring of 1989, the nation experienced its most extensive (and expensive) food scare. And Meryl Streep orchestrated it. She told Americans that apples were "contaminated" with the agricultural chemical Alar (a growth regulator) and that children eating apples were at risk of cancer and other diseases (CBS's Sixty Minutes chimed in with a similar story, complete with photos of apples, skull and cross bones, and children in cancer wards). Ms. Streep was omnipresent in the media with her scary message. As I often pointed out, we had an "actress suddenly turned toxicologist" intent on scaring parents about the safety of apples.

My organization, ACSH, was quick to respond. The Alar scare was totally without scientific merit. By the early 1990s, authorities ranging from the World Health Organization to to the Surgeon General C. Everett Koop confirmed that there was never any health risk posed by the use of Alar. (The manufacturer quickly withdrew Alar from the domestic food market -- only because apple farmers were suffering severely from a drop in sales, and Congress was poised to ban Alar to protect them from continued erosion of consumer confidence.)

Even the late Don Hewitt at "60 Minutes" told me that he regretted having done the Alar segment, but Ed Bradley, the producer of the piece, refused to retract it.

Julia Child was furious at Meryl Streep for her role in the apple scare. She told me so. Meryl Streep as an advocate for "safer foods" was completely discredited as a credible source -- so it is astounding that she would bring this subject up again in the UK newspaper interview. Her accusation that ACSH was/is a front for petrochemical and agricultural interests is absurd -- given the organization is funded by a full spectrum of foundations, individuals, and unrestricted grants from corporations -- and covers public health topics as diverse as swine flu, bioterrorism, cigarette smoking, and AIDS. ACSH is directed and advised by nearly 400 independent scientists -- and reports on pure science, not hype.

There is an old expression: that you know you have won the argument when your opponent shifts the focus of the debate from the issue at hand to attributing bad motivation to you. ACSH has won the debate hands down here. Meryl Streep never acknowledged that ACSH and Julia Child were correct: There was never a risk posed to human health by the regulated, approved use of alar -- and the same can be said of other agricultural chemicals registered by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Meryl Streep may be an excellent actress, but she knows nothing about food safety, nutrition and health, Julia Child, or ACSH. She should zip it on these subjects and just read her script.

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org).