Industry Responds to Pesticide Concerns

by PR Coach on June 16, 2011

Industry responds to produce pesticide level concerns

In my last post, I highlighted the release of a report by an environmental watchdog alerting consumers to produce with high pesticide levels. I said industry would respond quickly to this “crisis” so let’s see how growers have handled their messaging so far.

The report by Environmental Working Group (EWG) named the “Dirty Dozen” – produce with the highest pesticide levels led by apples, celery, strawberries, peaches and spinach. The “Clean 15” list, with the least pesticides, includes onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado and asparagus.

Two statements from the EWG report are worth noting:

“Consumers who choose five servings of fruits and vegetables a day from EWG’s Clean 15 list rather than from the Dirty Dozen can lower the volume of pesticides they consume by 92 percent, according to EWG’s calculations. They will also eat fewer types of pesticides. Picking five servings of fruits and vegetables from the 12 most-contaminated products would result in consuming an average of 14 different pesticides a day. Choosing five servings from the 15 least contaminated fruits and vegetables would result in consuming fewer than two pesticides per day.”

“The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure, and EWG strongly recommends that everyone follow USDA’s recommendation to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.”

A news release dated June 15th from EWG but available June 14th online was titled Chemical Agriculture Group Says, Shut Up and Eat Your Pesticides. It escalated its positioning and said:

“At EWG, we remember what Big Ag has long since forgotten or forsaken – the foundation stone of American commerce, that the customer is always right,” Cook said. “When customers say they want fresh, appetizing, diverse offerings of fruits and vegetables without a load of pesticides, we say, give it to them.”

“What the Alliance for Food and Farming seems to be saying is, ‘Shut up and eat your pesticides’,” concluded Cook.

The gloves are definitely off just one day later.

Industry Response to Pesticide Warnings

I suggested a number of crisis PR responses to expect including key messages. Various industry groups have responded in tones from aggressive to reasonable. Some of their talking points have been what I expected.  Here’s a selection of industry responses so far:

Alliance for Food & Farming:

Alliance for Food and Farming (ABCNews.com)

“The Alliance for Food and Farming, a trade group that opposes the new study, says consumers should keep eating the fruits and vegetables in the so-called “dirty dozen.”

“Not only are farmers of fruits and vegetables meeting requirements set by the US Environmental Protection Agency for pesticide residues, but their crops are shown to have either no residues at all or with residues 10 times to 100 times below already stringent safety limits,” said Teresa Thorne of the AFF.

Alliance Responds to Dirty Dozen List Release [News Release, June 13]

“The Environmental Working Group, an activist organization, has once again released its “Dirty Dozen” list which a panel of scientists and the EWG themselves say is not risk based.  Further, these scientists say that this “Dirty Dozen” list is actually misleading to consumers and should not be used when making purchasing decisions about fruits and vegetables.  This list is yet another example of why 79% of toxicologists surveyed say that the EWG is guilty of over-estimating risk to consumers.

EWG develops its list through manipulation of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program results and the Federal Food and Drug Administration’s pesticide sampling data.  “What is interesting is that EWG recently asked their membership to sign a petition calling for continued consumer access to ‘organic or low pesticide residue foods’ and the USDA and FDA sampling data clearly shows that this is what consumers are receiving,” says Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming, a group that represents both organic and conventional farmers….”

Washington State Apple Commission:

“This is just an emphasis of a particular issue that really has no bearing on health and nutrition of consumers,” says Todd Fry-Hover, President of the Washington Apple Commission.

“They’re [pesticides] a tool for the growers to maintain product availability 12 months out of the year from the state of Washington,” says Fry-Hover. “If you were an organic producer of apples, typically your production levels are 20 percent less than conventional, and your sizing is 10 percent smaller.”

Fry-Hover says that apples are treated within FDA recommended pesticide levels.

US Apple Association:

“US Apple supports the US Environmental Protection Agency‘s (EPA) safety levels governing pesticide use, as required under federal law. These health standards are based on state-of-the art science and extensive tests required by EPA. Of the over 700 apple-samples that were tested by the USDA, the vast majority fell well below EPA approved safety levels. The nation‘s apple industry urges strict enforcement of the law to prevent any possible over-tolerances residues.”

“According to the USDA, “the reporting of residues present at levels below the established tolerance serves to ensure and verify the safety of the Nation’s food supply.” In addition, the USDA report that is the basis for new ―Dirty Dozen list, shows that “overall pesticide residues found on foods tested are at levels well below the tolerances set by the EPA.” The list‘ does not pay attention to the actual levels of residues in the various foods which are within those tolerance (safe) levels, but simply states that residues were detected.”

Organic Trade Association (OTA) (News Release, June 14):

“Consumers wishing to avoid pesticide residues in food, water and on farms have a simple choice: choose organic products, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) pointed out today.”

USDA (on ABC News)

“… overall pesticide residues found on foods tested are below the tolerances set by the EPA …

United Fresh Produce Association (on ABC News)

Industry groups went further saying the Environmental Working Group far overplayed the numbers, noting that 99.7% of the federal government samples were within safety limits.

Ray Gilmer, VP of Communications, UFPA: “The dangers of not eating fresh fruit and vegetables far outweigh any risks involved in any residues that might be on those products.” On that point, the Environmental Working Group agrees.

In response to Monday’s release by the Environmental Working Group of the “Dirty Dozen” shopper’s guide, United Fresh Produce Association President and CEO Tom Stenzel issued a June 13th news release:

“At a time when medical experts strongly urge Americans to realize the health benefits from eating more fruits and vegetables, it is irresponsible to mislead consumers with a sensational publicity stunt disguised as science. While its authors admit the “health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure,’’ the Dirty Dozen list will almost certainly discourage many people from eating the recommended amounts of fresh produce and potentially diminish the nutrition and health of millions of Americans….

Hysteria-Inducing Headlines

It’s a huge challenge to reassure consumers when media coverage ranges from hysterical and unbalanced to dismissive and distrustful of industry and government officials. Just to show you what the industry is up against, here’s a selection of hysteria-inducing headlines from media the day after the EWG release:

An apple a day … means you’re eating plenty of the most contaminated fruit … [Daily Mail]

Apples are Named Produce with Most Pesticide [KFDA]

Apples Are Top Food With Most Pesticides [Medscape]

Apples Beat Out Celery As Most Contaminated Produce [Treehugger]

Apples Top Environmental Group’s List of Pesticide-laden Produce [California Watch]

Apples Top List of Most Pesticide-laden Fruit [CTV.ca]

“Dirty Dozen” List: Great, but What About the Farm Workers? [Mother Jones]

Farmers frustrated at EWG distortion of food facts [Western Farm Press]

Pesticide-Covered Apples: The Dirty Dozen Updated [Babble]

Pesticides: Apples and Celery Top the List of Contaminated Fruits and Vegetables [LA Weekly]

Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables: Are They Really Healthy? [ABC News]

Pesticides in Your Produce [CNN]

Top 12 Toxic Fruits and Vegetables [Care2.com]

Toxic terrorists ignore organic food threat [Financial Post]

Toxic Fruit and Veggies? [CNN Video]

Ironically, despite the headlines, some reporting has been relatively balanced although industry positions on day one and two have not yet had as much profile. Media looked mostly at EWG report highlights, lists of good and bad produce and tips consumers can use to reduce pesticide consumption.

Predictably, industry voices and positions were much less visible initially. You can expect some rebalancing in media coverage as various industry messages are covered in the next several days before the story becomes yesterday’s news.

Ironically, the EWG report comes just days after organic sprouts were found to be the source of a serious E coli outbreak in Germany. US organic growers should not be too smug.

The challenge for crisis communicators is to explain reasonable risk to consumers who are greatly concerned about food safety yet vulnerable to scary headlines. As often is the case, the truth lies somewhere in between the dueling scientists and conflicting political points of view.

I think most consumers are frustrated by stories like these. They’re not sure who to trust. There will be plenty more controversy and debate as consumers try to compare apples and oranges when it comes to pesticides, food safety and rhetoric.

What do you think? Has media coverage been balanced and responsible? Have industry groups managed to convince you of the safety of your produce?

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Photo Credits: ABC News  

Author: Jeff Domansky is Editor, The PR Coach

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