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Fear of pesticides won’t go away

dirty dozen strawberry
The Environmental Working Group’s annual Dirty Dozen list of “most contaminated” fruit and vegetable items, was released in March.

In the slew of emails I get per day, there is usually an item or two about bacterial contamination of food.

Not, usually, in produce. More often in shellfish, ground meat, and (I saw this today) even salami sticks.

Therefore, it’s easy to understand when a large sector of the public reports concerns about bacterial contamination, as it did in the recent Food Safety and Nutrition Survey, released by the Food and Drug Administration.

According to this, 80 percent of the respondents indicated that they were either “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about such contamination.

Much more so than food preservatives, for which only 37 percent reported equal levels of concern.

What stands out in these figures are worries about pesticide contamination: 81 percent reported being either “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” here.

The produce industry might want to give this some thought. Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks (again, usually not in fruits and vegetables) appears in news reports almost as often as teen celebrities. But there have been extremely few (I can’t at present think of any) recent such announcements about pesticide contamination.

Yet levels of concern about the two categories are more or less equal. Why?

Let me give the easy answer: scaremongering by organizations like the Environmental Working Group (sponsors of the annual Daily Dozen list, reviled industrywide) and news sources like Consumer Reports, which arguably give such announcements more publicity than they deserve.

More than one responsible nutritionist has criticized The Dirty Dozen list for scaremongering.

Yet the fear persists. Although it would not be fair to say that there are no pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables (particularly in certain imports), it is difficult to find any instance in recent, or even remote, years where they have been linked to widespread outbreaks of illness.

I think the answer has to be sought more widely. It is probably linked to public concerns about agrichemical pollution.

It can be, and probably is, true that pesticides pose a minimal threat to public health while in some cases creating considerable damage to the environment. But the public does not clearly distinguish the two.

The produce industry has made many good-faith efforts both to ensure food safety and to reassure the public, but it has succeeded better with the first objective than the second.

Because this is not exactly the age of trust, consumers have become cynical about business claims to civic responsibility.

Public opinion is not as easily managed as is sometimes pretended. An industry has to present an accurate and responsible picture of itself while acknowledging real concerns. Agriculture has often contented itself with complaints that “people aren’t listening to our story” while downplaying other people’s stories.

The public does not, it is true, often understand the challenges of producing food in a responsible way. But then how many of us really listen to anyone else?

When someone talks, are we just biding our time before we get the chance to open our own mouths?

Richard Smoley, contributing 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 12 books.