Consumers are often confused by seemingly conflicting advice from "experts." Some recommend low-carb, high-fat diets; others, low-fat Mediterranean ones. Some tout the benefits of hormone replacement therapy for menopausal symptoms, while others emphasize the risks. The scientific studies of these and other subjects are sometimes inconsistent. But while consumers may puzzle over the differing views of experts, they can be dangerously misled by activist NGOs whose agenda is baseless fear-mongering in the interest of fund-raising.
Consider the Environmental Working Group (EWG), leader of the "cell phones cause cancer" nonsense. Another of their lame hobby horses, which they trot out regularly, is the supposed danger of pesticides on produce. And each time — like Charlie Brown fooled by Lucy pulling away the football at the last second — the media buy into it.
The pesticide alarmism was debunked in July by an independent, peer-reviewed study by researchers at the University of California Davis. Unfortunately, the media responded with deafening silence, after it had so gleefully trumpeted the activists' earlier, ill-founded warnings. (The media's motto is, after all, "If it bleeds, it leads.")
The EWG pesticide alarmism began in 1995, when, backed by such eminent scientific entities as the Barbra Streisand Foundation (we are not making this up), the organization published its first "Dirty Dozen" — a list of produce that supposedly contained the highest levels of chemical pesticides. The annual list, which this year includes some of the most nutritious and delicious components of our diet – such as peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, cherries and grapes – is accompanied by an admonition to limit consumption of those kinds of fresh produce and to "avoid conventionally grown varieties" in favor of the more costly organic options.
However, a study published in April in the Journal of Toxicology by Dr. Carl Winter and Josh Katz of UC-Davis showed that 90% of the cases "exposed" in EWG's 2010 list involved levels of pesticides 1,000 times lower than the chronic reference dose (the level of daily exposure likely to be without an appreciable risk of deleterious effects during a lifetime of chronic exposure). Winter and Katz concluded, "The potential consumer risks from exposure to the most frequently detected pesticides on the 'Dirty Dozen' list of foods are negligible and cast doubts as to how consumers avoiding conventional forms of such produce items are improving their health status."
Moreover, as Dr. Winter wrote in a separate commentary for the International Food Information Council, "Three-quarters of the pesticide/commodity combinations [identified by the EWG] showed consumer exposure estimates more than one million times lower than doses given to laboratory animals continuously over their entire lifetimes that do not show adverse effects."
These are critical observations because, as has been known from antiquity, the dose makes the poison; in other words, a substance is toxic only if the dose and length of exposure are sufficient to cause damage – a fundamental principle of toxicology seemingly alien to the EWG. Moreover, the EWG's main recommendation – to "buy organic" – is belied by the fact that many organically grown versions of the "dirty" products are also "contaminated." As Winter and Katz point out, the same data from the Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program used by the EWG indicate that there are pesticide residues in nearly a quarter of organic food samples.
Winter presented his report at the American Dietetic Association's Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo this week. The food police on hand were outraged with his findings, but the best they could muster were ad hominem attacks on Dr. Winter and IFIC, such as, "Google Carl Winter and industry front group IFIC and you will understand." In fact, EWG's Senior Communications and Policy Advisor, Don Carr took to Twitter to call IFIC "industry goons." So much for scientific debate.
The "Dirty Dozen" list is always a headline grabber for EWG; no wonder the media-hungry activist group keeps updating the same worthless analysis each year. The report informs — or more aptly, misinforms — the public conversation about the alleged dangers of pesticides on food. EWG cleverly publishes the report every May or June, just as Americans are getting excited about the prospect of summer produce.
The media have failed dismally to do their homework. Reporters consistently fail to ask pertinent questions about dose, exposure, likelihood of actual harm or compliance with federal regulations. Had they done so, they would have discovered that the pesticide tolerances in food established by the EPA are extraordinary conservative – that is, highly risk averse – and that even these stringent limits are exceeded less than one percent of the time. They even had the advantage this year of the UC-Davis report having been published in a scientific journal weeks before the EWG press release went out. But reporters and editors regurgitated the same old story, touting the Dirty Dozen's supposed dangers while ignoring the science that belied the warnings
More to the point, according to Professor Bruce Ames, an eminent biochemist at UC-Berkeley, our foods contain 10,000 times more natural, endogenous pesticides — the result of plants evolving with their own natural defenses against fungi and predators — than synthetic ones, but many of the latter are actually less harmful. Although the minuscule amounts of synthetic pesticides in our foods pose negligible health risks, some activists actually advise consumers not to eat fruits and vegetables at all if they can't afford organic varieties — in spite of 100 years of evidence that those who eat the most conventionally grown fruits and vegetables have half the cancer rates for practically every type of cancer and live longer than those who eat less.
We will never convince the dedicated ideologues of the error of their ways, but the media can — and must — do better at presenting accurate and complete information.
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and directs its Risk Analysis Division. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution and a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.