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Big Ag’s “Celery Calculator” Lowballs Pesticide Risk

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

By Chris Campbell, Brett Lorenzen and Elaine Shannon.

Big agribusiness hates it when we talk dirty. The Dirty Dozen, that is, Environmental Working Group’s list of fresh fruits and vegetables that are most likely to carry pesticide residues. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration do the actual testing to determine residue levels. We compile the results into a user-friendly Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in produce, because we think people have a right to know what’s on their food.

A lot of people evidently agree. The Shopper’s Guide gets more than 100,000 page views a month — and it’s now become the target of a slick, well-heeled attack campaign by the conventional produce lobby. The industry’s latest counter-offensive, spearheaded by the California-based Alliance for Food and Farming representing major produce trade groups and agricultural chemical vendors, is a pro-pesticide website that goes by the faux-green name, Safe Fruits and Veggies.com. The website asserts:

“The mere ‘presence’ of pesticide residue does not mean that the food is harmful in any way. Use the calculation tool below to see how many servings a man, woman, teen or child could consume and still not have any adverse effects from pesticide residues.”

The  ”calculation tool” is a real head-scratcher. Take celery, which ranks first – meaning worst – on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list. The industry calculator tells us that a child between ages two and five could eat 98,412 “servings” of celery without consuming a dangerous amount of chlorothalonil, the most abundant pesticide on government-tested celery. Since few small kids want to tuck into a swimming-pool-size batch of crudités, the website’s message is one of reassurance. But a few facts underscore the absurdity of the Alliance’s efforts:

  • Celery rarely carries the residue of just one pesticide. Government lab tests have found that 95 percent of celery samples tested positive for pesticides; and 85 percent of them contained several different chemicals. Overall, 67 different pesticides showed up on various celery samples. The samples averaged 3.79 different chemicals each. Some samples had as many as 13 chemicals.
  • Some pesticides are more toxic than others. Chlorothalonil may be the most prevalent pesticide on celery by weight, but it’s not necessarily the most hazardous. If the typical bunch of celery has close to four pesticides – what about the other three?
  • The industry has grossly inflated the number of servings by setting an unusually low “serving size” of 7 grams — a fragment of a stalk [SEE PHOTO ABOVE]. That may be all the celery a kid wants to eat, but it’s a lot less than what most people think of as a “serving.”
  • Celery, a little or a lot, isn’t the only source of pesticide exposure. People encounter pesticides in other foods and water, on pets, on lawns, gardens and elsewhere. The “calculator” is only meaningful if the stub of celery you eat every day is all that you eat – it provides no value in assessing what your “real world” risk of exposure might be.

Most crucially, the industry calculator ignores the standard safety factors used by the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce federal pesticide restrictions. Toxicologists refer to the point at which lab animals do not appear to suffer harm from a substance as the no-observable-adverse-effects level (NOAEL). But that’s not truly a safe level for people, who are thought to be more sensitive to toxic chemicals than rats and whose bodies are more complex. It’s even more perilous for children and people with compromised immune systems. For these reasons, EPA and health experts routinely set the lab-rat-generated no-harm level 100 times lower for people. In some particularly worrisome cases, the federal Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 allows EPA to set a safety factor 1000 times lower. Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor and chairman of the Preventive Medicine Department at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, helped persuade Congress to pass the 1996 pesticide law. He contends that even a 1000-fold safety factor is inadequate for some chemicals, such as organophosphates, that have been linked to developmental disorders of the brain and nervous system. Just last May, a team led by Maryse F. Bouchard of the Harvard School of Public Health reported finding increased risk for attention-deficit/ hyperactivivity disorder (ADHD) among American children exposed to typical levels of organophosphates, the basis for many pesticides and herbicides. Says Landrigan:

“There appears to be no safe limit for the organophosphates. Exposure in early development, exposure during pregnancy lead to effects on brain development that are quite profound and qualitatively quite different from the toxicity produced by these chemicals in adult animals. The early development of the human brain is probably one of the most complex phenomena in all of nature. The price we play for that great complexity is great vulnerability. There’s not much chance to go back and get it right because the whole thing is such a precisely orchestrated dance. That’s why exposures even to small doses of chemicals can have devastating effects.”

People won’t gamble on their health and their children’s futures. As they become more aware of the consequences of food pollution, they are voting with their pocketbooks. It’s no coincidence that organic produce sales have been climbing rapidly, even during a recession. Meanwhile, per capita fruit and vegetable consumption (in cups) has remained fairly stable overall during the past five years. Among children and those aged 18-34, it has actually increased.  In fact, the group that has seen the largest drop in consumption of fruit and vegetables consists of men and women over the age of 65 – apparently grandma has forgotten her own advice.  At the end of the day, young families and children – the audience the AFF seems to feel is being most affected by the EWG message – are actually not only eating their vegetables, they are eating more of them, and they are increasingly choosing to buy pesticide-free products.  This is the exact result EWG had in mind when it created Dirty Dozen. If people mistrust the conventional produce and pesticide industries, it’s not because of the Dirty Dozen. It’s because of the industry’s long, sorry history. People don’t refuse to eat vegetables because of EWG. They refuse to buy vegetables, if they actually refuse at all, from people they don’t trust — and EWG’s Shopper’s Guide makes it easier for them to weigh that decision. When people demonstrate a clear preference for change and an industry declines to make improvements, people naturally wonder – why not? Is it cutting corners instead? Big Ag would do better to spend its money to fix its trust problem … instead of making it worse by engaging in nonsensical distractions, like the celery calculation. Turning to public relations campaigns as a “solution” only encourages people to distrust them more.