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.