Greg Johnson, Editor
Greg Johnson, Editor

On one hand, I feel guilty writing about the Dirty Dozen.

The produce industry complains about how much media attention the Environmental Working Group gets for its bogus annual list advising consumers which fresh fruits and vegetables they should avoid.

And here is another story on it from The Packer.

But I don’t feel as guilty as an industry association ought to for using the Dirty Dozen for its own marketing.

That distinction belongs to the Organic Trade Association.

On a Monday in mid-June, the EWG issued its annual list of 12 produce items consumers should avoid unless they buy the organic versions. The Dirty Dozen.

The next day, the OTA issued a news release stating, “Consumers wishing to avoid pesticide residues in food, water and on farms have a simple choice: choose organic products, the Organic Trade Association pointed out today.”

The OTA never mentions EWG or the Dirty Dozen anywhere in the release. It simply says organic produce showed significantly lower pesticide residue levels than conventional in the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program annual summary, which the EWG uses to form its list.

Any connection media groups make to the Dirty Dozen from this release is entirely on them.

Clever.

When I asked the OTA about the release and if it intended to capitalize on the Dirty Dozen, potentially at the conventional produce industry’s expense, spokeswoman Barbara Haumann said OTA did not encourage that connection.

“It’s not a black-and-white issue,” she said. “We encourage consumers to choose organic because it’s better for the soil and the earth.”

Again, OTA is clever here.

OTA doesn’t — and can’t — say organic produce is healthier or more nutritious than conventional, because there’s no consensus among scientists or nutritionists that it is.

If consumers make that connection, it’s on them. It’s really not the organic industry’s place to correct that misperception, right?

Only one organic item was tested in the PDP. The organic lettuce in the report did show much lower pesticide residue levels than conventional produce items.

In the nearly 400 organic lettuce samples, more than 80% had no detectable levels of pesticides.
And in those that did have some residue, it was far below established tolerance levels.

But then, only 0.3% of samples in the PDP showed residue higher than tolerance levels.

Neither EWG nor OTA mentioned organic lettuce was in the study and had any tolerance levels. I never saw a consumer media story mention organic lettuce was part of the PDP.

I think most consumers assume organic means no pesticides, and that’s reflected in organic lettuce’s omission from news stories.

“The OTA never said organic has no pesticide residue,” Haumann said.

Natural biopesticides are approved for certified organic, and those levels were miniscule in the PDP, she pointed out.

She’s right.

But OTA can’t claim it never says organic produce uses no pesticide.

Remember the first line of the release?

“Consumers wishing to avoid pesticide residues…”

It certainly implies, if not flat-out says, organic has no pesticide residue.

The news release’s headline reads “USDA pesticide data show startling differences in produce residue levels. OTA: To keep pesticides out of food, water, and off farms, choose organic products.”

Again, OTA says “to keep pesticides out…”

That means no pesticides.

Haumann conceded that OTA was talking about toxic pesticides as opposed to the approved biopesticides many organic farms use.

“People are concerned about toxic pesticides,” she said, and that’s one reason they buy organic.

Would adding one word, “toxic,” to the headline and first line have solved this implication that organic is pesticide-free?

Perhaps.

But all that would solve is making OTA more correct in the letter-of-the-law sense. My beef with the group is that it violates the spirit-of-the-law sense in that it helps justify EWG’s claim that any pesticide residues are bad, and consumers should avoid eating certain fresh fruits and vegetables.

Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., agrees.

“The (OTA) release takes advantage of the negative news” of the Dirty Dozen, which “implies pesticide residues indicate a problem,” he said.

Gilmer said the PDP report validates the hard work the industry does in keeping pesticide residues low, that 99.7% of products tested were below tolerance levels.

Indeed, organic lettuce fares very well in the report, and the OTA is justified in touting that success and the healthy products that organic producers provide consumers.

But in this case, it should have been more tactfully done.

gjohnson@thepacker.com

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