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Food Safety News

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Questions for the Environmental Working Group

Opinion

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued its annual Pesticide Data Program (PDP) report, which once again confirms that “residues do not pose a food safety concern.” Sadly, with the exception of Food Safety News, which covered the report in a March 10 story by Lydia Zuraw, very few in the media covered the release of this important report.

We thank Food Safety News for reporting on the PDP’s findings and also for providing readers with comments from our organization – the Alliance for Food and Farming – which has been working in recent years to help correct misinformation about pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. The Alliance has created a website to provide credible, science-based information to reduce the fears some consumers have about their favorite conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and feeding them to their children.

To be fair and balanced, Food Safety News also provided comments in their coverage of the USDA’s PDP report from one of the groups most responsible for spreading fear and misunderstanding about the safety of fruits and vegetables. Very shortly, this organization – the Environmental Working Group – will take the current PDP Report, combine it with years-old data, and manipulate the findings to create what they call their “Dirty Dozen” list. This list is developed annually without regard to credible, accepted standards for determining risk and without peer review. Nevertheless, when it’s released, certain media outlets will republish the EWG “list” and consumers everywhere will be told which fruits and veggies they should avoid purchasing – unless they are organic.

The Alliance for Food and Farming takes exception to the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list for a number of reasons. The most important is that we – and many, many nutritionists and health experts from around the world – believe this list discourages consumption of fruits and vegetables and raises doubt among mothers that what they are feeding their children is safe. This is unfortunate, given the emphasis of government agencies and health experts who understand these products are very safe and are urging people to eat more of them to reduce disease and obesity.

As additional proof of the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic, two new studies were released this week. One shows that eating more servings of fruits and veggies leads to a longer life. The other found no differences in cancer rates among organic and conventional consumers. A paper published in 2012 also found that if half the consumers in the U.S. consumed just one more serving of a fruit or vegetable each day, 20,000 cancer cases could be prevented each year – and this study was conducted assuming all servings were of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. Even the EWG states that conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are safe to eat and that people should eat more of them. This leaves us wondering why EWG does not provide consumers with this very important information in conjunction with their annual list. In fact, it has us wondering why they publish the list at all.

The fact is, the U.S. system governing approval and use of organic and conventional pesticides is regarded as the most health-protective for any class of chemicals in the world. Despite this, the EWG will say – as it did in the Food Safety News article – that the U.S. regulatory system is not safe enough. The EWG states that the strict tolerances for pesticide residue levels set by EPA are too high. In the Food Safety News article, EWG compared the current tolerances to a 500-mph speed limit, saying “it is too easy to comply and does not guarantee safety.” However, if you read the regulations involved in establishing tolerances for pesticide residues, the analogy is much more like setting a cautionary speed limit of, say, 55 miles per hour, then adding an additional tenfold safety factor so the legal speed limit is reduced to just 5.5 mph.  When you take into account the findings of USDA’s PDP report, the proper analogy would illustrate that produce farmers rarely come close to that 5.5 mph level, and, in fact, most aren’t moving at all.

For a more direct example using real residues found by government sampling programs, take a look at the Pesticide Residue Calculator on our website. Here you will learn that you or your children could eat hundreds, or even thousands, of servings of a fruit or vegetable each day without any health effects from pesticide residues. The residues are just so small that they do not pose a risk, as USDA and FDA sampling has repeatedly shown.

Despite this, EWG claims U.S. laws don’t do enough to protect children. This is interesting, especially since EWG applauded passage of new laws dating back to 1996 to improve the way pesticides are regulated on food, and EWG President Ken Cook takes credit for “his work at EWG culminating in the landmark 1996 Food Quality Protection Act that for the first time required EPA to consider the dietary risks of pesticides in food on children’s health.”

The EWG also now claims the “chemical ag industry” has effectively watered down the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), yet an article written for the Huffington Post just two years ago by EWG’s Alex Formuzis outlines in great detail how “the defenders of the FQPA have rallied to its defense” and are successfully keeping the law intact. EWG used to be one of those defenders, but apparently no longer.

Ironically, while EWG is busy bashing government systems, they repeatedly and continually boast about using data from government sampling programs, like USDA’s PDP, to develop their so-called list. They also repeatedly recommend that consumers “eat organic whenever possible.” However, these products are regulated by the very same U.S. system the EWG claims is inadequate. This same system also sets tolerances for the synthetic pesticides approved for use in the production of organic foods, which AFF believes are stringent and health-protective.

So, for those interested in using, covering or promoting the “Dirty Dozen” list, the Alliance for Food and Farming asks that you first read the actual USDA PDP report. Then read this peer-reviewed Journal of Toxicology paper which analyzed EWG’s list methodology and ask yourself – or better yet – ask EWG:

  • When EWG publishes its list, why not link to USDA’s PDP report for reference? This is a common and necessary practice when repeatedly referencing a study or report and is important for transparency.
  • Why would EWG criticize regulatory systems in place governing the use of conventional pesticides and state they are inadequate when many of those same systems are in place to ensure the safe use of pesticides in organic farming as well?
  • Why does EWG use years-old data to compile their list? Some of the residue samples they include are almost a decade old.
  • When talking about its “Dirty Dozen” list, why does EWG avoid providing consumers with information on the health benefits of eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables so people can make the choice for themselves about which foods to eat? Instead, EWG opts for language that is meant to frighten consumers about eating these healthy products and feeding them to their children.
  • Why doesn’t EWG submit their “Dirty Dozen” list and report for peer review? Publication in a peer-reviewed journal is a normal progression for reports that make scientific claims or assumption.

We’d be really interested in hearing the EWG’s answers to these questions.

© Food Safety News
  • anthony samsel

    The media doesn’t go there, they don’t cover stories that are bad for their business buddies in the chemical industry. Just look at Rupert Murdoch and his media holdings. Corporate media owners strictly forbid their employees to cover these stories, just like they refused to cover the oil, gas and mineral exploitation of the planet through the use of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. We wouldn’t want corporations who run the government to look bad, would we ? It only gets worse, especially now that they bought off judges to allow corporate citizenship.

  • Linda Adsit

    The bottom line with these folks is that a little bit of poison will not poison you. This is BS.

    • FoodSci

      Actually “the dose makes the poison” is generally accepted in toxicology. Not saying that it’s infallible, but excepions would be extremely rare. Copper is an essential nutrient, but you should only consume “a little bit”. You eat too much, it’s toxic. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002496.htm But thanks for sharing your *opinion* about the topic.

      • Linda Adsit

        Well, the dose multiplies with each apple, cucumber, potato, tomato, etc. that you eat, so the potential for toxicity is relative to the number of contaminated foods consumed, and the sensitivity to pesticides in the individual.

  • Oginikwe

    Thank for this article to the corporate sock puppet.

  • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff

    Celine, all fruits and vegetables contain their own pesticides, some of which are quite toxic. It’s the way plants work. Furthermore some organic vegetables and fruits are subjected to pesticides as well, just ones that are arbitrarily designated “organic” by the same USDA you criticize. These are not tested for by any agency or NGO. There is also limited, if any, control over the quality of “Organic” produce coming into the US from China and Mexico. And yes, there are multi-billion dollar organic corporations that work with and lobby that same USDA. Conspiracy theories don’t facts make. People are not dieing from pesticide exposure in western countries, but they are dieing from poor diets. It is important to understand where the real risks are. The EWG does nothing to identify the correct risks and instead has become nothing more than a propaganda outlet for the organic industry.

    • Mary

      People are dying from exposure to pesticides. They’re just the ones we don’t seem to care about: farmworkers.

      Organic pesticides are tested, and are not synthetic. They are made from plants, as you referenced. Also, organic agriculture relies on rotating crops and planting small beds of the same plant so that pests aren’t attracted and supported by gigantic fields of the same thing. Organic farmers use predatory insects to control infestations instead of spraying neurotoxic compounds that drift onto schools (as in Hawaii). Organic farmers plant things like marigolds in between rows of crops in order to repel insects. There is a whole arsenal of weapons that organic farmers use to control crop losses. The arsenal does not include neurotoxic synthetic pesticides that lead to resistance in insects, leading to more spraying. They’re trying to preserve the land, not beat it into submission.

      • daisy87

        Organic farming definitely has some really great practices that are great for the environment. Organic farming does, however, utilize pesticides. They are naturally derived but they can also be toxic or carcinogenic at high enough doses to animals and humans. Additionally, natural products do not, unfortunately, always mean safer. Poison ivy, venom, lead, mercury, botulism, etc. illustrate this. It is the naturalistic fallacy to claim that synthetic always equals bad and natural always equals good. Also, synthetic pesticides are also tested and there are practices in place that are meant to protect farmers. I’m not saying that these are perfect, always followed well, or that changes should not be made. But there is not some mass die-off of farmers from synthetic pesticides. Again, not saying that things are perfect or that better safety practices shouldn’t exist. But that statement, whether you intended to or not, puts in my mind a picture of mass die-off…which is not true. Also, keep in mind that organic farming can have yields that are 20% to 50% less than conventional farming. While organic farming may be helping the environment in some ways, by using more alternative forms of pest control, clearing more land may not be very environmentally friendly. There may be other trade-offs environmentally with organic farming but I do not know much about them. I think that the future of safe farming, for both the benefit of the earth and humans, will be farming that takes the best and safest from either organic farming or conventional farming and doesn’t make artificial dichotomies between organic or conventional; it simply uses what is best and safest.

  • TA Nelson

    If EWG engages in reasonable consideration of PDP reports and fails to encourage hysteria about pesticide use or any chem application, they undercut their value to the True Believers – the pro-organic, anti-GMO fear mongers. The comments here from EWG supporters reflect an unwarranted (but understandable) cynicism regarding the corporate influence on FDA. Producers need to do a better job of representing their processes and practices to a wary public, despite the fact that the most strident voices opposing them are in the distinct minority of consumers.

  • Helena

    “Animals do fine without eating food without pesticides.”

    Really?! Where is this separate supply of pesticide free grain, fruit, vegetables etc coming from?

  • Ed

    The author didn’t read too closely. From the study conclusions:

    “Conclusions:

    In this large prospective study there was little or no decrease in the incidence of
    cancer associated with consumption of organic food, except possibly for
    non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”

    Nor did she bother to research the studie’s limitations:

    “What is interesting is that, despite all the study construct
    shortcomings, researchers were still able to find a link between
    consuming organic food and reducing one’s risk of developing non-Hodgkin
    lymphoma. To show significance in the face of so much statistical
    noise means that the connection between avoiding this type of cancer and
    eating organic must be extremely strong”

    http://organic-center.org/news/cancer-study-has-limitations/

    • Joyce

      The USDA’s track record is already poor when it comes to protecting the public interest vs.

      the chemical companies. I don’t believe anything that comes from their “research” isn’t tainted by corporate connections.

  • Mary

    Even a little bit of poison is too much. I’d rather not be serving my child, with his developing neurons, a neurotoxin. Many toxins are now being shown by stringent empirical studies to have low-dose effects that were never conceived of by the people who studied their LD50 dose. YOU can feed it to your children if you want to, but keep it out of my food. I buy 100% organic food, and am proud to tell everyone I know why. One reason is to protect my child. Another reason is to protect the children of farmworkers, who here in California have the HIGHEST levels of pesticides in their blood than any other children in the world. That is directly due to pesticide drift and their parents who are working in the fields bringing it home on their clothing. Pesticides are often neurotoxins, and hard, empirical evidence has shown that these poisons affect children’s ability to learn and behavior. Rodent studies have shown that exposure produces autism-like behavior. The final reason is to protect the soil, air and water for future generations, and for the wildlife that make their home in them. STOP SHILLING POISON.

  • N. Kennedy

    So, http://www.safefruitsandveggies.com/ is financed by the Alliance for Food and Farming, “with additional support by the PMA”. It is not clarified there who or what the PMA are.

    PMA = Pesticide Manufacturer’s Association?

    And I’d like to know who exactly are the members of the AFF. “Its membership includes approximately 50 agriculture associations, commodity groups and individual growers/ shippers who represent farms of all sizes and includes conventional and organic production. ”

    Would any of the commodity groups be the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association? And would any of the organic growers/shippers be readily identifiable as part of “corporate organics”, who we hear about elsewhere, and their attempts to water down organic standards?

    We hear so many “weasel words” from “industry front groups”, that I think it is only natural for consumers to be both wary and cynical. Especially when hearing from an “industry front group” like the AFF. And especially when there is such a lack of clarity about who exactly is behind this.

    • KC RD

      PMA may be the Produce Manufacturer’s Association (www.pma.com). Makes sense that they would support this website.

  • Linda Illingworth, RDN, CSSD

    As a Registered Dietitian I
    take great exception to your 2 studies that say pesticide consumption
    is ok. The cancer study you cite was in the UK not on US women. US has different regulations. And
    there was a significant increase in non
    Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It’s not just one generation that is effected.
    Current research shows that gene transcription is effected for
    subsequent generations and at high risk are developing fetuses. EWG was instrumental in getting BPA removed from infant bottles and EWG
    prepared the US Water Quality report for the government. You have much to learn from them regarding putting consumers
    first. Here are my questions for you:

    1. Why don’t you put your influence into completely removing trans fats?
    Our government research says there is no safe amount to consume yet they
    are still on store shelves?

    2. Didn’t you care to share EWGs list of the Clean 15? Produce low in pesticide?
    3. Why do you site safety regulations on pesticide use that have nothing to do with tolerable limits which scientists state cannot be calculated? We have to follow multiple generations. I love the thought that because people didn’t get one of 3 cancers in a 9 year period we say pesticides don’t cause cancer. Cancer takes 10-15 years to develop.
    4. Should I go on?
    You clearly do not know enough about the human body, genetics and cancer risk to make these brash accusations and ridiculous posture against EWG. Maybe the original papers were not well publicized because they are not relevant.
    So on behalf of the professionals that have to explain these types of articles to lay people, please don’t make health recommendations that are not backed up by the vast majority of nutritionists and researchers. It only confuses the public and is frankly irresponsible for you to take the health of consumers into your hands.
    Lindal Illingworth, RDN, CSSD