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Industry Education Efforts Moderate The Damage, But The Media Can’t Resist EWG’s Annual ‘Dirty Dozen’ Stunt

We’ve written in the past pieces such as this and this about the Environmental Working Group’s annual publicity stunt of releasing a so-called “Dirty Dozen” report that purports to identify the produce items that have the most pesticide residues on them.

The annual stunt is self-evidently silly as it does not purport to actually measure risk of any kind. That is to say that if the whole conventional produce industry magically reduced each pesticide residue by 99% next year, there would still be 12 items that by this methodology would constitute a “Dirty Dozen” — and in light of the publicity this annual show garners the EWG, we could probably count on this group continuing its annual publication.

We would say that the actions of the produce industry, especially The Alliance For Food and Farming whose efforts have been partially underwritten by the Produce Marketing Association, as well as Western Growers Association and United have, in fact, both made EWG a little more temperate in its claims and made the media a tad more skeptical – even if the headline is close to irresistible and so the industry has a long way to go.

Still, if you read Marion Nestle’s blog, the famed professor of nutrition and food author, whose comments we have featured many times including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, she recounts much that is favorable for the produce trade – using material the EWG included in its release:

EWG explains that its Shopper’s Guide is not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks but instead reflects the overall pesticide loads of common fruits and vegetables….

Most available research supports the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables regardless of their pesticide loads. Ken Cook, the president of EWG says:

“We recommend that people eat healthy by eating more fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic,” says Ken Cook, president and founder of Environmental Working Group. “But people don’t want to eat pesticides with their produce if they don’t have to. And with EWG’s guide, they don’t.”

Nestle also is quoted in an LA Times piece that is rather dismissive of the EWG report:

A study published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed Journal of Toxicology, using the same USDA data from 2004 to 2008, said scientists found the levels of pesticides in 90 percent of cases from the 2010 Dirty Dozen were at least 1,000 times lower than the chronic reference dose — the concentration of a chemical a person could be exposed to on a daily basis throughout life before risking harm.

A person would need to eat ‘so much (of the produce on the Dirty Dozen) you can’t even imagine,’ said Dr. Marion Nestle, author and professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

One area that we would differ with professor Nestle — and the EWG — is the endorsement of organically grown produce as necessarily more healthy.

It is one thing if Ken Cook wants to man the ramparts over people’s rights to make an aesthetic choice to avoid synthetics.

Yet in the LA Times piece, Professor Nestle makes a substantive claim:

…for those trying to limit their exposure to pesticides, the Environmental Working Group recommends choosing organic produce whenever possible.

But Herrington (A registered dietician at Northwestern University) points out that organic does not necessarily mean pesticide-free. The USDA allows pesticide use on organic crops, though ‘the pesticides in organic agriculture are mostly natural, meaning they are found in nature and less toxic,’ Nestle said.

We don’t think the science exists to back up the good professor on this point. Pesticides exist to kill pests. Natural substances can kill as surely as synthetic ones. If natural substances are “less toxic,” then organic farmers would have to use more of them to achieve the same lethality against insects that conventional farmers have with synthetic pesticides. That residues would be “less toxic” is not at all clear.

We have seen no research at all to indicate that residues of say, copper sulfate, on organic produce is somehow healthier than a residue of a synthetic pesticide on conventional produce.

Of course, whatever the EWG writes in its release and whatever experts such as professor Nestle contribute to op-eds, the sadness here is that plenty of consumers, unable or unwilling to get into the gritty details, are likely to read the headline, say a Pox on both conventional and organic, and buy their kids cookies or candy bars instead of apples for their lunch box.

The EWG should be ashamed of itself for pushing such non-science in order to boost its fund raising, and the media should be ashamed of itself for falling for it — year after year.

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