(Jan. 17) Managing to offend most everyone in the produce industry, a Consumer Reports article called “When it pays to buy organic” drew heavy criticism from fruit and vegetable leaders and return fire from the consumer group.

A scientist with the group said chemical residues on produce is a consumer right-to-know issue, and said studies confirm that organic produce has lower residues than conventional produce.

Urvashi Rangan, environmental health scientist with Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumer Reports, said Jan. 11 that “nowhere in the story does it say conventional produce is unsafe.”

Denying any political agenda for Consumer Reports, she said the Produce Marketing Association and other industry advocates were “reading between the lines and feeling slighted.”

“As a matter of fact, organic produce does have less pesticide residues,” she said.

Rangan admitted that the effect of eating produce with minute chemical residues is not well understood.

“There are studies that show residues of pesticides that are floating in the blood of kids who eat organic produce are less than kids who eat conventional produce,” she said.

That could influence neural development, she said.

She said eating organic produce can decrease exposure to chemical residues in addition to benefit the environment.

“There is nothing incorrect in what we said,” she said.

The Consumer Reports story, found in the February edition of the magazine, went on sale Jan. 10 and also was published online at www.consumerreports.org/cro/food.htm.

Based on the levels of chemical residues found on food, the article created one list of organic items that concerned consumers should buy because of pesticide residues on conventional produce and another list of items where the price premium on organic items might not be worth it.

The story advises readers that organic items worth buying “as often as possible” include apples, baby food, bell peppers, celery, cherries, dairy, eggs, imported grapes, meat, nectarines, peaches, pears, poultry, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries.

The article said that organic items worth buying “if money is no object” include asparagus, avocados, bananas, bread, broccoli, cauliflower, cereal, sweet corn, kiwifruit, mangoes, oils, onions, papayas, pasta, pineapples, potato chips and sweet peas.

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Produce industry leaders said the report wrongly associated minute traces of pesticides on produce with food safety worries.

The Consumer Reports story received fairly heavy media play, including stories on ABC, CNBC and several metropolitan newspapers, said Kathy Means, vice president for government relations at the Newark, Del.-based PMA.

“It’s irresponsible,” she said Jan. 11. “Organics is a production issue and not a food safety issue.”

Means wrote a PMA response to the story that was published on the PMA’s Web site Jan. 10.

In the online statement, Means said government regulation and industry attention to chemical use and minimizing risks of food pathogens have resulted in food that is safe to eat, she said.

Consumers who choose to buy organic produce should do so on the basis of environmental considerations, she said.

One apple industry leader said the report was trying to advance a political agenda.

“There is a group of activists out there who want food grown without pesticides,” said John Rice, sales manager for Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa.

Rice believes Consumer Reports is trying to advance the agenda of the Environmental Working Group, an activist organization which provided the data analysis for the story.

Rice said apple growers use no more chemicals than they need to.

“We’re paying a lot more for chemicals than 10 years ago, and nobody is using any chemicals they don’t need to,” he said.

Saying conventionally grown produce items are less safe to eat than organic items is offensive, added Jim Gorny, vice president of quality assurance and technology for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C.

“There are multiple reasons that consumers choose to purchase organic products, but safety shouldn’t be one of them,” he said.

Gorny added there is no credible evidence that shows a demonstrable difference between the safety of organic and conventional fruits and vegetables.