In June 1993, the Environmental Working Group released a report titled "Pesticides in Children's Food." In the very first line of the forward to that study, EWG President Ken Cook had this advice for parents: "Don't toss out those fresh strawberries, mom. Don't dump the lettuce, don't pitch the tomatoes, don't throw out the bananas, and don't pour that apple juice down the kitchen drain."
The 1993 paper drew wide attention from the media and the public. And our advice remains the same today.
But that hasn't stopped a trade group that represents conventional agriculture interests in California from repeatedly claiming falsely that EWG is trying to dissuade consumers from eating conventionally grown produce. It just happened again, following a blog post EWG published earlier this month (May 8, 2012).
The Alliance for Food and Farming, which has spent the last two years and $180,000 in taxpayers' dollars attacking EWG's "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce," wrote on its own blog: "EWG is telling parents that feeding their children fruits and vegetables can cause them 'serious and lasting harm'."
Once again, the AFF completely misrepresented what EWG said about "serious and lasting harm."
What our blog said was:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began testing fruits and vegetables for pesticide residues in 1991 after the public became concerned about their potential risks to children. Remember Alar? In 1993, at the request of Congress, several top public health experts released a seminal report, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Three years later, Congress responded by passing unanimously the federal Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), which required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement health-based standards for all pesticides used in food, with special safeguards for infants and babies.
This flurry of activity grew out of one overarching conclusion embraced by scientists, physicians, policy makers, parents, and the public interest community: Pesticides used in the cultivation of fruits and vegetables can cause serious and lasting harm to young children."
The AFF's blog came back with this:
"And, one more thing, we would like to ask EWG to clearly explain why they follow their increasingly scary messages with this statement: 'Oh and eat your fruits and vegetables, organic or conventional. They're good for you.'
EWG, you either agree with the recommendation of health experts everywhere that parents feed their children more conventionally and organically grown produce because both are safe and healthy, or you don't.
So let's try again (though we hardly expect the AFF to pay attention to the facts):
This comes from the Frequently Asked Questions section in last year's edition of EWG's "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce:"
Should we eat more fruits and vegetables?
Yes! According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, Americans have been eating roughly the same quantities of fruits and vegetables for some years. For instance, in 1997, every American ate an average of 100.42 pounds of fresh fruit. In 2007, the number was 100.21 pounds.
The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables. But with EWG's Shopper's Guide, consumers don't have to choose between pesticides and healthy diets.
Do all these pesticides mean I shouldn't eat fruits and vegetables?
No, eat your fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Use EWG's Shopper's Guide to reduce your exposures as much as possible, but eating conventionally grown produce is better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.
Should I stop eating celery or blueberries or other produce items on your Dirty Dozen list?
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.
No group in the public interest community has done more than EWG to advocate for shifting federal resources away from large commodity crop growers and toward conventional and organic fruit and vegetable production and healthy food initiatives for families and schools. One of EWG's top priorities in the current fight over the 2012 farm bill is to take $1.5 billion in tax dollars that have been going to grain and cotton growers and use that money instead to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the 30 million+ kids enrolled in more than 100,000 schools served by the federal school lunch program.
EWG has been loud and clear all along that consumers should eat a diet rich in fruits and veggies, but we're also concerned about dietary exposures to pesticides -- particularly in young children -- and that's the glaring difference between us and the AFF trade group, its members and other chemical agriculture interests.
For decades, industrial agriculture has been calling pesticides "essential tools in the toolbox." Growers' associations and pesticide makers have fought to the bitter end against any attempt to restrict or ban even those agricultural chemicals that have been clearly linked to serious health risks.
Years ago, one pesticide used by strawberry growers represented by the AFF -- methyl bromide -- was shown to destroy Earth's protective ozone layer and cause numerous illnesses among farm workers and people living near the fields. Yet, even with that undisputed evidence before them, California growers demanded that it remain at their disposal.
In fact, every time a crop chemical turned out to be dangerous, the message of chemical agribusiness representatives has been, "Sorry, but we need it."
That's what happened in 2010, when the EPA announced it would phase out the pesticide aldicarb in U.S. agriculture -- 25 years after the chemical poisoned thousands of people who ate aldicarb-laced watermelon.
"Aldicarb no longer meets our rigorous food safety standards and may pose unacceptable dietary risks, especially to infants and young children," the EPA said.
Even though the government reached an agreement with the manufacturer, Bayer CropScience, on that decision, chemical agriculture interests refused to accept that decades of exposure to aldicarb posed serious health concerns to children. Instead, they stuck to the line that the pesticide was a tool that agribusiness needed and dismissed the evidence that it was a risk to human health.
"For nearly 40 years, Temik (aldicarb) has provided farmers with unsurpassed control of destructive pests, without compromising human health or environmental safety," insisted Bill Buckner, president and CEO of Bayer CropScience, in a statement following EPA's announcement. "We recognize the significant impact this decision will have on growers and the food industry, and will do everything possible to address their concerns during this transition... We recognize the loss of this tool to growers and will seek innovative solutions to fill this void."
Bayer made no mention of the watermelon poisoning 25 years earlier or any of the later research that showed aldicarb to be toxic to humans. So toxic, in fact, aldicarb is still used in a popular rodent poison in Mexico and South America called Tres Pasitos, or three little steps.
From EPA's website:
"Tres Pasitos" is imported illegally from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Its name means "three little steps" in English, because after eating it, this is all mice can muster before dying. The active ingredient (or the chemical that actually kills the pest) in "Tres Pasitos" is a chemical called aldicarb. EPA considers aldicarb to be a very toxic chemical -- and one that should never be used in your home... Very high doses can kill people, because it can paralyze the respiratory system. What "Tres Pasitos" does to pests, it can also do to you.
That lethal ingredient in Tres Pasitos was used on potatoes, citrus, watermelons and soybeans in the United States for more than 40 years before it was finally taken out of chemical agriculture's "toolbox."
So when representatives of the AFF and conventional agriculture tell us that the pesticide tools they're now using are "safe to eat," remember the farm workers and nearby residents who were exposed to methyl bromide and the American children who swallowed aldicarb with their food over the last 40 years -- while industry insisted those pesticides were completely safe.
At EWG, we have two questions for the Alliance for Food and Farming and its colleagues in chemical agriculture:
1) Which, if any, proposed pesticide regulations at the federal or state levels have they supported over the years?
2) Which, if any, pesticides, including any organophosphates, in use today would the AFF agree to ban or restrict?
We have our suspicions as to how AFF would respond to both, but we'll hold our thoughts until they do.