Armed with new research showing that some consumers are shying away from consuming fresh produce because of pesticide residue concerns, the Alliance for Food and Farming called on the Environmental Working Group to cease publication of its Dirty Dozen list unless it can prove its claim.
Paying no heed to industry concerns, the EWG published the eighth version of its Shoppers Guide to Pesticides on Produce June 19. The guide includes the so-called “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists of fruits and vegetables ranked by presence of pesticide residue. This year’s list from EWG put apples, celery and bell peppers as the “worst offenders” of the Dirty Dozen, while onions, sweet corn and pineapples were called “the cleanest conventional produce” of the Clean 15.
Mixed messaging about fruits and vegetables from the EWG have taken a toll, said Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Watsonville, Calif.-based alliance.
In a press teleconference June 19, Dolan said headlines that same day about the EWG Dirty Dozen list included “Is the produce you eat covered in pesticides?” and “Terrifying toxic fruit list will change the way you eat.”
“None of these reports contain any balance or counter information and neither does the report itself issued by the Environmental Working Group,” she said. “This is something that has to stop.”
On June 19, the Alliance for Food and Farming issued a 20-page report on June 19 titled “Scared Fat: Are consumers being scared away from healthy foods?” The research said the impact of negative messages on food safety issue is an emerging public health threat, lowering the faith of consumers in government regulations and failing to promote fruit and vegetable consumption. Dolan said the lists make consumers feel like they are making an inferior choice when they choose conventional produce.
Christine Bruhn, director of the Center of Consumer Research at the University of California-Davis, said in the teleconference that research has shown choosing organic produce doesn’t reduce risk but it does add cost.
"I am actually really outraged by the (Dirty Dozen) report that was released today - it is pure fear mongering,” Bruhn said. “The appropriate message to give to people to enhance health is to encourage them to eat more fruits and vegetables. In the online survey of 800 adults, nearly one-tenth of low-income consumers polled said they would reduce consumption of fruits and vegetables after hearing negative messaging about pesticide residues. Another 9% said they didn’t know what they should do.
“We’re calling on (EWG) to stop publishing the lists, unless they can show their language is not discouraging consumption,” Dolan said.
Dismissing that suggestion, Alex Formuzis, vice president of media relations for the Environmental Working Group, Washington, D.C., said if consumers pick Doritos over fruits and vegetables, it is not because of pesticides. “It’s because that is what they want to eat,” he said. Formuzis said the group was “100 percent certain” that any decline in fresh produce consumption is not attributable to the EWG Shoppers Guide. For consumers want to reduce their consumption of pesticides, Formuzis called the lists a “useful tool.”
Elizabeth Pivonka, president and chief executive officer of the Hockessin, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation, said the EWG reports could cause consumers to choose a food like a hot dog instead of healthy fruits and vegetables.
“It is an irresponsible thing to have headlines like this and not give a balanced report to this kind of information,” she said.The “Scared Fat” report features research conducted in April by the research firm Charlton Research Co, using an Internet poll of 800 adults.
The study found that in a first ballot, 53 percent of consumers surveyed indicated they were very concerned about the safety of fresh produce. Thirty six percent of those polled said “free from chemical residues” is an important factor in fruit and vegetable purchases, trailing only “safety from contamination of food borne illnesses” (39 percent) and “cost of the product” (38 percent) in significance those surveyed.
After being presented in the survey with four negative messages about fruits and vegetable safety—one relating to pesticide residues and others relating to genetic engineering of food—consumers polled showed elevated levels of concern about food safety. The survey then found that 10 percent more consumers—rising from 53 percent to 63 percent—said they were concerned about fresh produce safety. Meanwhile, the percentage of those polled who were “not at all concerned” about fruit and vegetable safety shrunk by 5 percent, from 15 to 10 percent.