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Time for USDA to Release New Pesticide Residue Data

Monday, May 16, 2011

The politics around pesticide use by conventional growers of fruits and vegetables have dramatically intensified in recent days. On Friday (May 13), Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook blew the whistle on the agri-chemical lobby's months-long effort to get the government to put the industry's spin on the upcoming annual report on pesticide residues on fresh produce. Today, The Washington Post quoted Cook as it reported on the pesticide industry's efforts to silence EWG and others who aim to provide as much information as possible to parents concerned about pesticide residues on the food they feed their kids.

“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.”

Writing about the pesticide lobby's campaign on the Grist website today,  Tom Laskaway observed:

Never mind that many consumers want this information. As with labels for genetically modified food, the industry's position is that ignorance leads to bliss (or at least profits!). The industry maintains that even the Dirty Dozen show pesticide residues beneath EPA limits, and to them, the letter of the law is what matters. Of course, if you believe that pesticides are more dangerous than government scientists are willing to admit then these limits are insufficient. Then there's the whole concept of synergistic effects -- combinations of several pesticides in small amounts can deliver a greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts toxic punch. As The Washington Post article observes, recent research showed that children exposed to higher levels of a once-common class of pesticides known as organophosphates displayed lower IQs, suggesting that "safe" levels of pesticides may not be safe at all. Organophosphate pesticides have also been linked to ADHD in kids. And research that came out last summer suggested that in families that eat conventional produce, pesticide levels in kids' blood can spike beyond EPA limits during the height of fruit and vegetable seasons.

It is now four months past the time when the US Department of Agriculture historically releases its latest pesticide data. Noting the unusual delay, EWG and several top physicians and scientists wrote last week to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, urging them to release the most recent pesticide test results quickly. The release accompanying the letter to USDA, EPA and FDA is below.

EWG, Top Scientists Urge Administration to Release New Pesticide Residue Data

Washington, DC - (May 16, 2011) For roughly two decades, the US Department of Agriculture has tested various fruits and vegetables for pesticide residues, usually making its findings available to the public in January. More than four months into the year, results for USDA’s 2010 tests have yet to be released. Scientists at the Environmental Working Group rely on that data to compile the EWG Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides, which ranks produce according the amount of residues each type carries in the USDA tests. EWG President Ken Cook and several of the nation’s top physicians and scientists wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg urging them to no longer delay the release of the most recent test results. The letter also calls on the officials to bolster the government’s research into the adverse health effects of pesticides, particularly on children.

“We are writing to urge you to release the latest data on pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables frequently eaten by babies and children. These data, which the government normally releases by January each year, are overdue,” the group wrote. “Children are uniquely sensitive to harmful effects from pesticides. Yet they eat substantial quantities of certain fresh fruits and vegetables – apples, berries, peaches, for example – proven to contain multiple pesticide residues. We urge you to expand testing programs and share ample information with the public about pesticides in all produce, especially those that show up in children’s diets.”

Click here for a copy of the full letter PDF Icon. Research has shown that a number of pesticides can cause persistent problems to children's brain development. Three recent studies showed that children born to mothers with significant pesticide exposures had IQ deficits, including one study that found a seven-point drop. Despite such findings, the produce lobby has aggressively pressured the Obama administration to combat public unease about pesticides’ effects. According to press reports, trade groups representing conventional produce growers urged USDA Secretary Vilsack in April to prevent “mischaracterization” of the agency’s pesticide residue data. This was one of a series of efforts by the industry to limit public access to this information. As part of its efforts to quell public fears over pesticides, the industry convinced California’s Department of Agriculture to award an $180,000 federal taxpayer-funded grant to support the front group Alliance for Food and Farming, which claims that misuse of the pesticide data is to blame for decreased consumption of fruits and vegetables.

“It is shocking in 2011 to see major produce companies in a public bear hug with the pesticide lobby,” said EWG president Ken Cook. “Consumers would be right to wonder if these big produce interests are selling fruits and vegetables, or pesticides,” Cook added. “Using EWG’s guide, USDA’s own data make it easy for consumers to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables while dramatically reducing pesticide exposure,” Cook said. ”It turns out that is exactly what consumers want—more produce, less pesticide. Trying to convince consumers otherwise may play well with international pesticide companies like Monsanto and Dow,” said Cook. “It is not going to play in the checkout line.”

EWG has filed a Freedom of Information Act request PDF Icon for all of USDA’s recent communications with produce and pesticide industry representatives to shed light on whether the AFF taxpayer-funded marketing grant has been improperly used to support the lobbying efforts of AFF members. The group of scientists and EWG are urging the Obama Administration to PDF Icon:

  • Speed the release of the latest data on pesticide residues in produce.
  • Make the FDA’s Total Diet Study and USDA's Pesticide Data Program more informative and transparent.
  • Test annually all fresh produce commonly eaten by children, especially products likely to carry significant pesticide residues and release the results immediately.
  • Conduct more extensive dietary studies to assess the risks to children who eat pesticide-carrying produce.
  • Expand monitoring of pesticide residues on imported foods.
  • Tighten regulations governing pesticide residues on food crops to ensure “reasonable certainty of no harm” to children and others most sensitive to their effects.
  • Enhance efforts to promote organic fruits and vegetables as options for consumers concerned about pesticide exposure.

Those on the letter include Phil Landrigan, MD, Director, Children’s Environmental Health Center and Dean of Global Health at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine; Alan Greene, MD, with Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University; Harvey Karp, MD Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at USC School of Medicine; Andrew Weil, MD Founder and Director, Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, Professor of Public Health, University of Arizona; Charles Benbrook, Chief Scientist, The Organic Center; Chensheng (Alex) Lu, PhD, Assistant Professor of Environmental Exposure at Harvard School of Public Health; Robin M. Whyatt, DrPH, Professor of Clinical Environmental Health Sciences Columbia University’s School of Public Health; Frederica P. Perera, DrPH, Director, Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health and EWG president Ken Cook. ###