Apple a Day Brings Pesticides and a Crisis

by PR Coach

under the loop

Producers face a pesticide crisis & PR roller coaster

Food producers face a roller coaster of public concern about pesticides with the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) new report on pesticides in produce.

With reports like these the media pay attention, producers brace for a crisis of consumer concern and bureaucrats run for cover. That certainly the case with the June 13, 2011 seventh edition of EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

EWG’s news release highlights 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.

Notable changes in the new guide included apples’ rank as the most contaminated produce, jumping three spots from last year to replace celery at the top of the “Dirty Dozen” list. According to USDA, pesticides showed up on 98 percent of the more than 700 apple samples tested.

Making an appearance in the guide for the first time is the herb cilantro, which had never been tested by USDA until now. The data showed 33 unapproved pesticides on 44 percent of the cilantro samples tested, which is the highest percentage of unapproved pesticides recorded on any item included in the guide since EWG started tracking the data in 1995.

Also appearing in the guide for the first time are green onions, cranberries and mushrooms. Mushrooms made the “Clean 15” list, while honeydew was the only item to drop off that list this year. Cherries dropped off the “Dirty Dozen” list, but lettuce, which has made the list in previous years, were back on.

Happy ThanksgivingOrganic food producers will be licking their lips at the expected public hysteria and concern around this report. Just in the past several hours, major TV networks and newspapers have featured extensive coverage of the “Dirty Dozen” along with dueling “experts”, tips for cleaning your produce and debate about the use of pesticides in food production.

EWG has already accomplished part of its goal of using “the power of public information to protect public health and the environment.” Although some argue against scare tactics, it’s effective media strategy by serving up controversy.

This will be a crisis roller coaster ride for weeks if not months for apple and other fruit producers as well as the growers of vegetables named on the list.

How Should Producers Respond to This Crisis?

Fruit and vegetable producers have a difficult row to hoe when it comes to consumer confidence in safe, healthy produce. The EWG science is hard to disprove:

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.

If they’re smart, various industry groups will already be prepared for this seventh annual EWG report. There are a number of potential strategies and responses you can expect from industry groups, including:

  • Gathering your own science and facts.
  • Preparing consumer-friendly materials and website information.
  • Developing key messages and media talking points.
  • Training your own “experts” and spokespeople diligently.
  • Acknowledging consumer concerns.
  • Looking for third-party experts and additional groups to endorse your position.
  • Reassuring consumers that pesticide use is carefully controlled and monitored by producers, studied in detail by scientists and carefully regulated by government.
  • Certify that US producers and products have the highest standards and product quality in the world.
  • Using storytelling to highlight how farmers and producers take care in production, with quality and concern for the consumers, who include their own families.
  • Utilize social media including video to reach directly to consumers with your key messages and storytelling.
  • Quickly rolling out your own response to the EWG report. Follow up consistently, thoroughly and respectfully.

Some Crisis PR Don’ts

Here are several things I hope that the industry and producers don’t do when responding:

  • Don’t avoid consumer concerns. Acknowledge them and your critics.
  • Don’t use conflicting or confusing “mad science” arguments to defend yourself, especially when battling emotional arguments.
  • Don’t be defensive! Accident the positives, your standards, the care and concern of producers, the regulations that guide production, the quality of food, etc.
  • Don’t get angry. Losing your temper in media interviews and on-air is a sure sign that you are not telling the truth.
  • Don’t overreact. Again, be guided by consumer concerns and demonstrate what you are doing to improve standards and safety.

It’s an enormous challenge for individual producers and small industry groups to respond to a report like this. There are no “bad guys” with the intent to harm consumers but there may be “bad practices” that need to be addressed by producers and by government.

In the meantime, it may be best to simply follow EWG’s advice:

“Though buying organic is always the best choice, we know that sometimes people do not have access to that produce or cannot afford it,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “Our guide helps consumers concerned about pesticides to make better choices among conventional produce, and lets them know which fruits and vegetables they may want to buy organic.”

This is one time where Mom’s advice to “Eat your vegetables, dear!” may get a “We’ll get back to you Mom!” response from the kids. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to watch the industry scramble to respond and reassure consumers.

Does this report concern you? Will you be buying organic or finding other ways to reduce your pesticide intake? Did you think the EWG is needlessly worrying consumers? Looking forward to your comments below.

If you’d like other crisis PR tips and resources, our PR Library is stocked with articles and insights to help you plan and manage a crisis including online crises as well as learn important media training tips. The PR Bookstore is open 24 x 7 with several excellent crisis management titles too. Please sign on to our blog or get our RSS Feed directly to your favorite reader.

Photo credit: Jim Grady and Faith Goble via Flickr

Author: Jeff Domansky is Editor, The PR Coach

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