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Their Spray Rigs in a Twist

Friday, May 13, 2011

When industry lobbyists want the government to do something the public won’t like, they usually go about it quietly.

Not so for the produce and pesticide lobby. It’s been pushing for months to have the government adopt the industry spin on the US Department of Agriculture’s upcoming annual report on pesticide residues on fresh produce. That spin is basically to tell shoppers and parents—moms in particular--“Don’t worry your pretty little heads about this pesticide stuff.”

Remarkably, the growers and pesticide makers have had their trade rags publicizing their closed-door communications with top government officials for all to see.

Back on Oct. 22, 2010, an industry publication, The Packer, reporting on a meeting between produce industry lobbyists and top Obama administration officials, wrote:

“The objective in the initial organizational meeting was that we want to see if we can figure out that whatever data is out there be less likely to be misconstrued and misinterpreted,” said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce. “We’re trying to make sure that anyone who reads that PDP (Pesticide Data Program) report sees — as do all the people in the room (Oct. 19) — that there is no risk associated with the consumption of fresh produce due to pesticide residues.” (Italics added)

On April 28, 2011, The Packer came back to the topic:

The leaders of more than a dozen produce associations have asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to do everything he can to prevent mischaracterization of pesticide residue data from the USDA’s upcoming release of the annual Pesticide Data Program Summary report.

On April 29, the Agra-net.com website jumped in:

Eighteen grower groups have written to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, reiterating their concern that data in the department's annual Pesticide Data Program (PDP) summary report will continue to be misused by advocacy groups.

As did the April 29 edition of The Produce News:

“We appreciate the dialogue and outreach from the USDA officials involved in the development of this report; however, we remain concerned that the PDP (Pesticide Data Program) report and the important information it contains will continue to be misused,” wrote 18 produce trade groups in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on April 27, 2011.

Why all this fear and loathing on the part of the produce and pesticide lobby?

The April 28 article in The Packer made it clear:

The Environmental Working Group has used that report (PDP) for about a decade to create its “Dirty Dozen” shoppers’ list.

Yes, it’s true. EWG uses the PDP’s latest test results every year to update our easy-to-use Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides, which makes it easy to find out which types of produce have the highest and lowest pesticide residues, making it a cinch to know when it makes a difference to buy organic products. (At EWG, we happen to think that buying organic produce is always a good investment, but we also recognize that not everyone can always find or afford it.)

This year’s test results from USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) are due out in a matter of weeks or days. But if chemical agribusiness gets its way, the information made available to the public may look much different than in years past. And when those who make pesticides and spray them on the food we eat ask the government to alter how it publishes its results, we’re pretty sure that the health and welfare of eaters is not the first thing on their minds.

Let’s back up a bit.

In 1991, there was growing concern over possible health risks from consuming fruits and vegetables that carried pesticide residues, but the administration of former President George H.W. Bush and conventional growers were anxious to quell the public’s fears. The next thing we knew, the USDA had set up a pesticide-testing program and placed it in the agency’s Agricultural Marketing Service. It became clear that the PDP’s unofficial mission was to persuade a jittery public that it had nothing to worry about. The line was: “There are very few, if any, pesticide residues left on fruits and vegetables by the time they fill the supermarket bins, and we’ll test a few to prove it.”

Oops.

It didn’t work out that way. Instead, the tests showed that a number of the fruits and vegetables did carry residues of pesticides – in some cases more than just one or two. And ever since then, the PDP has been testing fruits, vegetables, eggs and meat annually and making those results available on its website around this time of year.

Within two years, the PDP had implemented a sophisticated system of data collection and analysis and adopted the recommendations made by the National Academy of Sciences in its seminal 1993 report, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children.

On Page 3 of the executive summary, the NAS report made this crucial point:

A fundamental maxim of pediatric medicine is that children are not ‘little adults.’ Profound differences exist between children and adults. Infants and children are growing and developing. Their metabolic rates are more rapid than those of adults. There are differences in their ability to activate, detoxify, and excrete xenobiotic compounds. All these differences can affect the toxicity of pesticides in infants and children, and for these reasons the toxicity of pesticides is frequently different in children and adults.”

In the landmark 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, Congress responded by requiring the secretary of agriculture to test fruits and vegetables most commonly consumed by infants and children.

As it says on PDP’s own website: PDP concentrates its efforts in providing better pesticide residue data on foods most consumed by children.”

That’s a good thing, but making sense of the data in the program’s detailed, technical reports isn’t the easiest thing in the world. So EWG began to collect and analyze the data in user-friendly form. And over the years, millions of concerned consumers have relied on EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides when choosing produce for themselves and their families.

Why? It’s simple. They just want to know if they’re swallowing a mix of toxic pesticides every time they take a bite of an apple. It’s a reasonable question, particularly because the government periodically takes pesticides off the market that leave residues on produce out of concern for chidren’s health—pesticides that the government insists are safe right up until the moment they ban them. People have a right to know, and people just generally don’t want to eat pesticides. But the conventional produce industry just doesn’t get it.

Last year, big produce growers decided to fight back. The pesticide-produce lobby had its spray rigs in such a twist that it launched an attack on EWG and the Shopper’s Guide, and actually got taxpayer funding to do it. Armed with nearly $200,000 in your tax dollars, the industry created the Alliance for Food and Farming, which was set up solely to attack EWG’s Shopper’s Guide. The group spent your money, and much of the last year, claiming the Shopper’s Guide, and not their own products, is the reason that its sales have been slumping while the organic alternatives have seen their sales surge.

It apparently doesn’t occur to the conventional growers that the real reason is that the organic products taste better and don’t deliver toxic pesticides into the daily diets of themselves and their children.

It was barely a year ago that the President’s Cancer Panel, in its 2008-2009 Annual Report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, recommended that consumers take concrete steps to eat foods without pesticides.

“Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers and washing conventionally grown produce to remove residues,” advised the panel.

That would be a lot harder to do if USDA were to massage pesticide-testing results the way the growers and pesticide makers want, and if EWG were unable to keep its Shopper’s Guide up to date. Federal agencies should compile and analyze more information, not less, about industry’s use of pesticides. Many parents would prefer to pack their kids’ lunch boxes with fruits and veggies free of pesticides.