Every year for two decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued an annual report on the amount of pesticide residue it detects from samples of fresh fruits and vegetables around the country.
The Environmental Protection Agency uses the data to monitor exposure to pesticides and enforce federal standards designed to protect infants, children and other vulnerable people.
But the 200-page annual report has become a target of an unusual lobbying campaign by the produce industry, which worries that the data are being misinterpreted by the public.
In a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 18 produce trade associations complained that the data have “been subject to misinterpretation by activists, which publicize their distorted findings through national media outlets in a way that is misleading for consumers and can be highly detrimental to the growers of these commodities.”
They are most concerned by “The Dirty Dozen,” an annual list released by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that ranks the fruits and vegetables it says have the most pesticide residue. The group also lists “The Clean Fifteen,” a ranking of produce with the least residue.
“Our list has been something that has really gotten under their skin,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, which began issuing the list a decade ago. “All we’re saying is, if you want to minimize your exposure to pesticides, shop from this list. And if you look at the explosion in the organic sector, it’s clear that people want to avoid pesticides if they can.”
To the produce industry, “The Dirty Dozen” is fearmongering.
“There are some organizations with agendas that do want to scare people away from fresh produce,” said Kathy Means, a vice president at the Produce Marketing Association, a major industry group. “We don’t want anyone eating unsafe foods, of course. But for those products that are grown legally and the science says [the pesticide] is safe, we don’t want people turning away.”
In fact, industry research found that one in four consumers are worried about the routine use of pesticides on fruits and vegetables, and 18 percent cite it as the main reason they don’t buy more, Means said.
At the same time, sales of organic fruits and vegetables — which are grown without synthetic pesticides — are increasing rapidly and now make up 12 percent of all U.S. fruit and vegetable sales, according to the Organic Trade Association. Even during the economic downturn, organic fruit and vegetable sales reached nearly $10.6 billion in 2010, up nearly 12 percent from 2009, the association said.
Meanwhile, the annual report from the Pesticide Data Program is overdue by several months. The USDA intends to release it “shortly,” according to Michael T. Jarvis, director of public affairs for the Agricultural Marketing Service within USDA.
Asked if the agency will change the report in response to concerns from the produce industry, Jarvis wrote in an e-mail, “Our role is to gather the test results on produce sold in the United States and share that information with EPA,” he wrote. “The data and the results have not been changed.”
The produce industry has met privately with USDA officials to urge the agency to amend this year’s report to include “some context” that would reassure consumers about the safety of fruits and vegetables grown with pesticides, Means said.
“We want the government to provide some interpretation, to help the public understand how to use the information so that it’s not just a data dump that can be misinterpreted,” Means said.
For instance, USDA should stress that the vast majority of residue detections are below the limits set by the EPA, Means said.
The efforts by the produce industry have alarmed several leading public health experts, who sent their own letter recently to Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg.
“As scientists and public health advocates who have long urged consumers to reduce pesticide exposures when possible, we are concerned about any industry efforts to spin or censor the government’s collection and release of pesticide residue data,” they wrote in the letter prepared by the Environmental Working Group.
One expert, Philip J. Landrigan, an epidemiologist and pediatrician at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, said federal regulation of pesticides in food needs to be tightened and the public is rightly concerned about possible health impacts from exposure through food.
He pointed to a trio of peer-reviewed studies published last month that found children exposed in the womb to high levels of a class of pesticides known as organophosphates had lower average intelligence than other children by the time they reached age 7.
If exposure to pesticides is harming children, it doesn’t matter if the levels are below the legal limit set by the government, said Landrigan, whose research in the 1990s compelled the federal government to significantly tighten pesticide standards.