Last month the United States Department of Agriculture released its Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary which reports pesticide residues on fruits, vegetables and other foods commonly consumed in the United States. This was the 20th time this report has been published and it, in part, represents the transparency the USDA has with respect to food safety.  The report provides detailed information on the types and amounts of pesticide residues found on foods sold in the U.S. marketplace.  Consistent with previous years, when found, the levels of pesticide reported are extremely low among three government agencies — USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — all of whom advise consumers that the regular consumption of fruits and vegetables containing the amounts of pesticide residues reported is not thought to represent any safety risks.

This USDA report and the accompanying press release received scant media attention.  Typically, stories with good news about the safety of our food supply get minimal coverage.  Regrettably, there is a high probability that this pesticide residue report will be misrepresented by some, and consumers will be advised to shy away from certain fruits and vegetables due to allegations about “high” levels of pesticide residues. Unfortunately, this type of advice has garnered much media attention in the past.

Recent consumer research shows that warnings about the alleged dangers of pesticides may result in reductions in the overall intake of fruits and vegetables. While some could argue that providing information to consumers about pesticide residues simply fuels an increased shift from the consumption of conventionally grown crops to those grown organically, this ignores the issue that organically grown crops are typically more expensive, and higher produce costs could present a significant challenge to many in our society.  While such a challenge might be reasonable if there were well documented scientific data that supported the contention that there are different health benefits of conventionally grown versus organically grown foods, at present this is not the case.

What people should be doing is eating more fruits and vegetables of all kinds — whether they are conventional or organic.  Sadly, statistics show this is just not happening.  Rather, research shows that consumers are eating fewer fruits and vegetables and only a small fraction of the population is meeting USDA dietary guidelines to make half of what we eat fruits and vegetables.  Admittedly, there are many reasons for this including cost, availability and the fact that some people just don’t like them.  But one thing is certain: Fear should not be a reason to avoid these healthy products.

Each time a new report is issued or emerging science appears claiming that pesticide on foods are linked to a specific health issue, media coverage is abundant.  While we clearly need studies that are aimed at improving our knowledge of the potential health benefits and risks of the produce we consume, what often gets left out of the media coverage is that the findings are often preliminary in nature.  And they may even conflict with other studies reporting increased fruit and vegetable consumption results in lower rates of these same maladies.  At present, the simple fact remains that thousands of research projects conducted over several decades suggest that the healthiest people are those who consume plant food rich diets.  Ideally, this is what the media should be reporting.  Of course consumers have the clear right to know about what goes into their food.  But the media and health educators have a responsibility to provide people with the full story on complex food safety topics.

I urge consumers and the media to seek out information from universities, public health agencies and other independent resources whenever there is a new report on food safety.  It’s crucial that all of us do whatever we can to help people understand how important it is that they consume diets rich in fruits and vegetables, and that such diets are not avoided due to inappropriate concerns over their safety.

Dr. Carl L. Keen is the Mars Chair in Developmental Nutrition, Professor of Nutrition & Internal Medicine, and a Nutritionist in the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of California at Davis.

  • Samantha

    Oh oh Carl. We can see that someone hasn’t been drinking the organic koolaid.
    Surely you must know misrepresenting pesticide residues is the only sales gimmick organic producers have, at least it is their preferred one. Their produce is no different nutritionally or toxicologically from conventional foods.
    They simply bash and trash conventional foods in a desperate scramble to differentiate their own, even if it means making false assertions. Well, especially when it has them making false assertions because it is so much fun telling silly nonsense to innocent gullible people, getting them to mistrust and hate one another then sit back and watch the mob hysteria play out.
    Indeed, we should eat a reasonable portion of fruits and vegetables, whatever the source and whatever the form. It is that simple. Too bad that simple message is intentionally distorted and complicated by the organic small farm lobby to trick shoppers into buying their overpriced schlock.

  • Organic food usually grows slower and therefore tastes better. It is also usually grown by small farms who have a more diverse shopping list for unusual heirloom and better tasting product. Let’s not even go to the GMO issues and keep it simple. (I had to plug the organic farmers out there, we fight the good fight)

  • Carmen

    “Fear should not be a reason to avoid these healthy products”
    That’s just crazy talk. Of course fear is essential to divert shoppers away from abundant, safe, affordable conventional foods toward manure-laden organic alternatives. Fear is one of the principal selling points of organic.
    Then there’s snob appeal. Everyone wants to ape the ritual affectations of affluent poseurs like Prince Charles. Organic is the ideal elitist’s meal. If organic food was a hat foodies would always leave the price tag on and wear it conspicuously showing in the front.
    Blend in a little greed, a dash of delusion, flavor to taste with political misdirection and there you have it. A sumptuous organic feast fit for a foodie!

  • Carlo Silvestri

    I will gladly put up one of my organically grown tomatoes against one of the store bought mass produced non-organic lumps that try to pass for tomatoes. Only a totally close minded fool who either has no taste buds or is a foil against anything that is called “organic” wouldn’t be able to taste the difference.

  • hbottemiller

    Dr. Keen,
    Appreciate your piece… but just wanted to point out that there is another reason why this report may have received little attention in the media: The USDA released it on a Friday afternoon, which is what agencies typically do to downplay stories or bury them in weekend coverage.

  • jed

    Industry shills might be keen on promoting pesticide-laden vegetables but the fact is our food doesn’t have to be produced that way — unless you’re mass producing for mass markets, that is, and passing on the regular and ongoing “side effects to our health and environment.
    Theres nothing “elitist” about wanting safe food in the marketplace — it’s just well to remember that food safety has been conveniently defined solely in toxic microbial terms — while toxic agricultural chemical adulterants remain ubiquitous in our conventional food supply.

  • Helena Bottemiller

    Dr. Keen,
    Appreciate your piece… but just wanted to point out that there is another reason why this report may have received little attention in the media: The USDA released it on a Friday afternoon, which is what agencies typically do to downplay stories or bury them in weekend coverage.

  • Brenda

    Yo Jed! The report explains our food supply is safe. No need to stress over our food — it’s OK, safe to eat, safe as it has ever been, maybe safer. Can’t understand how you missed that message — it is sort of the entire point of the report. They looked, they evaluated, they discovered things are OK. It’s good news, Jed, good news. Take your blinders off and enjoy some good wholesome abundant safe affordable fruits and vegetables. No need to drive all over creation and pay 2X for boutique food. Are we breaking through to you Jed? Go to any supermarket, dig in and enjoy!

  • Ted

    Some piddling possible pesticide residues are one thing but this is a whole ‘nother can of worms…literally:
    Here we are freaking out over the faintest traces of possible pesticide residues but ignoring a huge source of danger in those “alternative” foods we are told are so, so safe. Tsk, tsk to all you free-rangers.

  • Jed

    HO Ho Brenda! This “safe” is what Big Produce SAYS is safe — so they can sell tons of pesticide-laden vegetables to unsuspecting consumers.
    Yes — our industrialized food supply IS laced with poisonous pesticides. Agribusiness uses 17 separate pesticides on cilantro alone, for example. But those amounts have been “evaluated” and are “OK” — so says the USDA lapdogs — who don’t actually do the testing themselves but use industry studies to “prove” it. What an industrial money-grubbing scam!! Meanwhile, the evaluated allowable levels are much lower to zero in Europe… Hmmmm…
    Thankfully there’s an option to chose NO toxic levels at all in that same supermarket for those that care what they feed themselves and their families — with an organic label.
    Meanwhile I AM enjoying fresh, safe, affordable, delicious veggies, thank you very much — what we don’t grow ourselves is called local certified organic… Careful about giving it a try, however, — once you get a taste of the Real Thing you’ll never go back to those chemical substitutes….

  • Ted

    It is manure-laden food you really need to worry about as it turns out. That only makes sense. Technology is engineered, tested, tried, retested, enhanced…etc. But organic is stuck in a manure saturated antiquated time warp. No thought, no testing, no concern for consumer safety — just slather on the manure and mark up the price.
    And now manure worship has tracked deadly toxoplasma bugs into elitists’ alternative meat supplies, what a mess!
    Why do we let these lying “alternative food” small farm lobby sales pitchman jerk us around like this?

  • Patti

    I bought some of that organic sweet corn and it was full of worms. Just crawling with worms and bugs. My daughter was so grossed out she won’t eat much of any vegetable now. I have to show her the can now or she won’t touch it. I think anything that keeps worms and bugs out of our food is fine with me. It is good to learn modern food is safe so we don’t need to eat old fashioned buggy food.

  • Jed

    Now “Ted” — you’ve been called out on this before — here it is again so you’ll finally stop jerking us around on this: Certified organic totally Prohibits the use of manure — as well as human sewage sludge on crops — while this is an ongoing totally allowed common practice on conventional farms. Period.
    If you’re advocating a national testing policy for toxoplasmosis — then conventional food is the place to start.

  • Ted

    Pesticide residues we can test…and we do. And we can all be confidently reassured when they come back from independent labs at miniscule trace levels. A known quantity. Cut and dried. Our conventional food supply is as safe as it is abundant and affordable.
    Not so with organic. We can’t test…so no testing is done. We must take the word of self-interested paid spokesmen for the organic industry…not very reassuring, at all. In fact, the organic system is riddled with complacency and loopholes. No reason to believe, if a practice is “prohibited”, it isn’t being done anyway. No one is looking and there are no consequences if a producer accidentally is caught cheating. One big fat cheesy self-policing honor system built on big talk and even bigger fantasies.
    Friends covering for friends to relieve foolish grocery shoppers of their money. That’s organic certification and policing. Slippery sales pitches from paid organic industry reps are no substitute for USDA testing and reporting. Just more manure being pitched in our direction.

  • Sandy Mills

    I really must take issue with “Jed’s” refutation of natural manure organic fertilizers. Manure is an excellent organic fertilizer, perhaps the best and most readily available. Here at ACE we supply a variety of very popular manures for organic vegetable production, manures so popular they are frequently sold out with anxious growers forced to wait patiently for back orders to be filled. We expect to be re-stocked within a few weeks. Our fine manure products are always fresh. They never remain in the warehouse long enough to become stale!

  • Jed

    Ah Sandy — sorry about that trap you just fell into. It is 100% correct that organic farmers are prohibited from using raw manure. But when the Organic Foods production Act was passed by Congress in 1990 it did not cover bagged gardening products under the USDA Organic label.
    But Miracle Gro, Scotts, and other sleazy big time operators have taken advantage of this loophole to sell unsuspecting customers “organic” potting soil mixes and bagged (composted) manure products which are often laced with toxic chemicals and other materials which could never qualify for the organic label. Same situation with “organic” shampoos — they’re also not covered — yet…..

  • Michael Bulger

    It would take a whole ‘nother academic discipline to decipher the underlying issues that lead a troll to troll itself.

  • Ted

    Claimed to be organic when it fits the agenda, claimed no longer to be organic when facts become inconvenient. When the magic smoke clears, presto — it’s organic again! There’s your good ‘ol boy self-policed certified organic industry for ‘ya. But don’t ask those hard questions…just smile and fork over your grocery money sucker.

  • Jim

    Now Ted-troll, there you go again with more organic-bashing disinformation.
    Unlike chemical agriculture, organic is heavily verified at the source (the farm) by accredited USDA independent 3rd party certification agents — and on-farm inspectors — of the federal National Organic Program. ALL farming practices, inputs, etc have to be completely documented and inspected — and each farm is liable for random testing.
    How about chemical ag? Well — no testing, no verification and built-in toxic allowances that are a danger to our food supply………

  • Ted

    Ah, there it is!
    When your flimsy argument is publicly debunked, when you are no longer able to BS your way through the rising tide of facts…become adamant and call those not taken in by your deception a “troll”. Now, that’s making a deep intellectual statement and really sticking it to The Man, ain’t it girls?
    Heh, troll indeed. An argument every bit as convincing as the charade of organic itself. Precisely what we have come to expect as we have come to “know our farmer”. Game over girls. Time to go blow your organic smoke up someone else’s skirt.

  • Jonie

    “Ted -troll” — quite fitting for one who’s Got Nothing but Disinformation and Bashing… check it out…

  • Alex

    Please stop your “small farm” bashing! I am one of those small farmers who do not use any pesticides, chemicals, etc. Let’s just say that my customers pay the price I set because of certain factors. One being that I handpick any weeds that come out of the ground, which is terribly time intensive. Would be nice to have a nice, easy, air conditioned, office job like most of these people who are bashing the small farmers! Two, I do not use any “fresh” manure on any of my plants. I have pasture-raised laying hens and any of their waste gets composted and not used until the next year. About those chickens. I have taken stool samples to my vet every year as I am Animal Welfare Approved, and they NEVER find any kind of parasite, etc. in them. Goes to show that having these animals on a clean pasture (and I’m talking about acres of land, not feet!) makes a difference — no battery cages for my hens! And their eggs are NEVER covered in their feces — NEVER, NEVER, NEVER! The main house they sleep in at night is, and I quote from a pet sitter I have used, “Cleaner than most people’s houses I have been in!” So, Ted, stop your rants on all these posts. If you don’t want to eat organic, then don’t! If you want to eat meat that comes from animals that are treated inhumanely, then do it! But when YOU come down with some disease that can’t be cured because NO antibiotics will work because they were given to these meat animals, you have no one to blame but yourself!

  • Ted

    Well, goodie for you Alex. You are so pure! But what bashing? For triple-A rated professional bashing you need to look to your fellow elitist small farm lobbyists who are relentless in unfairly bashing our remarkable modern food system and the common classes of food consumers. See how even you, the self-anointed purist, cannot resist doing it before you end your comment…trying to scare us with imagined dreadful incurable diseases caused by meat animals…give us a break from your pious pigcrap Alex, old chum. You and your organic small farm mountebanks are fleecing naive shoppers with your deceptive promotion of, as you put it, “certain factors”…imaginary science fiction “factors” at best. Why don’t you go out and do something constructive like scoop up some more chicken poop samples or crawl around depositing your dung fertilizer and picking at weeds in your splendid magic garlic patch? No normal person is interested in what you think or how you while away your time.

  • Alex

    I think you need to shut up and get a job! Amazing how you do nothing but put down people in these Food Safety News posts. Really, you must be in bed with these Agri-business folks who are just mad that small farmers like us will have people who actually care where and how their food was grown, along with how we take care of the environment. Get a life!