On Why Consumers Must Think for Themselves

A few days ago I received a phone call from a consumer who was interested in blueberries.  His first question is, “Have you seen that story on the news about how blueberries have lots of pesticides?”  I had to admit that I had not.  He continued, saying, “The story said that domestic blueberries were bad due to organophosphate pesticides.” (You can read more on organophosphate pesticides here (http://npic.orst.edu/RMPP/rmpp_ch4.pdf).  I was very surprised to hear this and went on to explain that not all blueberries are treated equally in terms of pesticide application and that the Rabbiteye blueberries grown in this area (southern MS) have minimal pesticide application — and some are even organically grown.  The answer seemed to satisfy him, but it has gnawed at me ever since.  What kind of story would try to deter people from eating fruits and vegetables?  So, I looked up the source — EWG, the Environmental Working Group based out of Washington, D.C. (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/).

On the face of it, I don’t have a problem with this organization.  They claim to “use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment.”  Good goals for an organization.  However, my issue is with the “Dirty Dozen” list (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/).  I don’t doubt that some of these fruits and vegetables may have pesticide residues that are detectable, but the way it is presented is, I believe, irresponsible.  The part I find to be irresponsible is the lack of transparency in how the study was conducted.  In every study that appears on peer-reviewed publications there is a Materials and Methods (or similarly named) section.  In that section is a complete detail of how the study was conducted such that another person could possibly replicate it.  The “Methodology” (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/methodology/) reported by EWG is weak at best.  There is certainly not enough detail to allow a consumer to understand all of the necessary elements of how the study was conducted.  The EWG states, “Nearly all the studies on which the guide is based tested produce after it had been washed or peeled.”  But no mention of which studies that contributed to the results was made or where to find that information.

The EWG further states that, “The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide is not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks but instead reflects the overall pesticide loads of common fruits and vegetables. This approach best captures the uncertainties of the risks of pesticide exposure. Since researchers are constantly developing new insights into how pesticides act on living organisms, no one can say that concentrations of pesticides assumed today to be safe are, in fact, harmless.”  But rather it seems they would rather you think them harmful.  By sensationalizing the name “Dirty Dozen” that implies a negative connotation even though they admit to “uncertainties of the risks of pesticide exposure”.  That is not even the worst part of this though — the worst part is that each fruit or vegetables is labeled as a singular entity.  Number one on the list is Apples.  Does this mean domestically grown apples?  Imported?  Both?  Locally grown?  Are there variety differences?  Different varieties have different tolerances to certain pests which could in turn influence the amount of pesticides applied.  Grapes are number 7 on the list.  Wine grapes?  Table grapes?  Raisin grapes?  Juice grapes?  Domestically grown?  Imported?  Vitis vinifera?  Vitis labrusca?  Vitis rotundifolia?  Grapes grown in the eastern U.S. will have different pest pressures than those in the arid West.  Blueberries are number 11 and it says “domestic” blueberries.  Are these highbush blueberries?  Rabbiteye?  Lowbush?  Those all can be grown domestically, but are treated very differently when managed in the field.  The issue is that the consumer does not have enough information to made an informed decision, but rather is lead down the path to sensationalism.

The EWG points consumers in the direction of purchasing the “Dirty Dozen” items as organic rather than conventionally grown.  Organically grown fruits and vegetables may be grown without pesticides — but not always.  In some cases pesticides that are applied — and applied often because the organic-approved pesticides may not have the same efficacy as conventional pesticides thus requiring more applications to keep pests at bay.  I don’t have anything against organic — I buy some organic items.  But again, we are not receiving all of the pertinent information from EWG.

In their defense there is a FAQ section on their website (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/faq/) and one of the questions asks, “Should I stop eating celery or blueberries or other produce items on your Dirty Dozen™ list?” followed by this answer, “No, that has never been the Shopper’s Guide message. We would certainly recommend produce from our Dirty Dozen list in lieu of other, less-healthy foods or snacks, like fat-, sugar- or additive-laden processed products. But with the Shopper’s Guide you can have all the benefits of eating more produce while substantially reducing dietary exposure to pesticides.”  At least they recognize the fact that eating fruits and vegetables — conventional, organic, or otherwise — is crucial for a healthy lifestyle.

Yet, without further transparency and detail on the studies conducted how can a consumer really make an informed decision?  The caller I had last week sure couldn’t make a distinction based on the information reported by the media.  And that is why we, as consumers, must critically examine these “news” stories for truth and value.

2 thoughts on “On Why Consumers Must Think for Themselves

  1. Thoughtful post. And I agree that the all or nothing approach to the Guide is frustrating. You advocate for more information for the consumer which I think is a good idea. I would argue though that once the produce is in the store the consumer has very little information to help them make choices, unless there is some type of source marketing information. You make the case that some blueberries follow different spray programs (highbush vs. lowbush) but once that produce is in the store how would the consumer know what kind of blueberries they are buying? I suppose with all the food safety regs we might get to the point that there would be a barcode we could scan with a smartphone that would tell us where the food came from and a relative pesticide exposure risk, but do we really want that? That seems like too much information, although it would provide a lot more information at the point of purchase. The consumer in general has very little information on what residues are on the produce they buy. I think that minimizing exposure is the responsibility of regulators, chemical makers, and growers. I think the real reason for this Dirty Dozen list is to create support for reducing pesticide exposure by putting pressure on regulators, processors, growers, and the chemical industry. When it comes to feeding my small children, I’d rather take a chance on organic. Whether that is the right choice I don’t know, but it is what I feel most comfortable doing based on the information that I currently have.

    • John:
      Thanks for the comment. My thoughts were really related to methodology of the study and not necessarily on the consumer end. I would like to see a better explanation of the specifics I outline in the post. Yes, the consumer won’t know at the grocery store on most items, but they could at least have the opportunity to look at the study in detail online (or in print, etc.) and make a more informed decision if they so desire. At this point, the consumer is not given that opportunity. The way the Dirty Dozen is presented now is next to worthless for the consumer — it is sensationalism. That being said, I have nothing against organic and I buy a lot of organic fruits and vegetables myself. But I also know what (likely) went into producing these products. I can look at where it was grown and the variety (in some cases) and know what was applied to the fruit. I advocate that consumers have the opportunity to think for themselves and not be lead to believe something that may or may not be true.

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