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Behind the disjuncture on produce safety

“Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables,” indie rock artist Courtney Barnett says in her song “Dead Fox.” “And I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first / A little pesticide can’t hurt.”

Barnett echoes a common public sentiment about the connection of pesticides to produce.

In last week’s column, I highlighted the difference between the actual safety of produce as determined by rigorous government tests and public perceptions of that safety.

In the study cited above, approximately 99 percent of all fruits and vegetables—both organic and conventional—tested showed pesticide residues far lower than threshold safety levels.

Yet concerns about pesticide residues remain high, as evidenced by the October 2020 cover story in Consumer Reports, entitled “Stop Eating Pesticides.”

Why this disjuncture?

Teresa Thorne, executive director of the Watsonville, CA-based Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), says, “There are certain groups, like the Environmental Working Group (EWG), putting information out there that inaccurately reflects on the safety of fruits and vegetables.”

The EWG is best known for its annual Dirty Dozen list, which lists the fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residues. As produce industry sources are quick to point out, pesticide residues even in these crops are far below maximum safety levels (which are themselves computed conservatively).

Thorne contends that groups like EWG are “well-funded and well connected. We don’t have Michelle Pfeiffer on our board.” (The EWG’s website says, “Michelle has been a supporter of EWG since its inception”).

Despite a lack of glamorous celebrities, Thorne says, AFF’s mandate “is to ensure that consumers, media, nutrition experts have accurate information. What does USDA actually say?

“We began our Safe Fruits and Veggies campaign in 2010,” continues Thorne. “It provides information to consumers, so they can make a choice.

“We’ve made significant inroads,” Thorne adds, citing “a significant decline in coverage” for the Dirty Dozen over the past ten years, and even greater drops in the past three years. “This year they really struggled to get any coverage at all,” she points out.

“We’re breaking through,” Thorne says. “We’re engaging with mainstream media and reassuring them about the real story. What other industry has a 99 percent compliance rate?” she asks.

The disjuncture between real and perceived produce safety has had “public health consequences,” contends Thorne, citing a study showing that “94 percent of registered dietitians say that this campaigning negatively impacts their ability to influence the diets of consumers.”

Food scares don’t drive consumers from conventional to organic products, emphasizes Thorne. She cites a study published in Nutrition Today, showing that when “consumers hear this negative messaging, especially low-income groups, they move away not just from conventional but from organic as well.”

Again, why the disjuncture between real and perceived safety?

“The main reason is that farmers are exceptionally popular but are exceptionally busy,” she said. “We don’t always tell them our story.”

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 11 books.