Dan Galbraith, Sections Editor
Dan Galbraith, Sections Editor

Even fresh produce industry insiders admit ignorance about results of testing organic and conventional produce in the recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program annual summary, which the Environmental Working Group uses to form its dreaded Dirty Dozen list.

Although Greg Johnson, editor of The Packer, in an opinion column recently chastised the Organic Trade Association for trying to take unfair advantage of the report’s results, about six in 10 members of the produce industry who took our July Produce Pulse survey said they were initially unaware organic lettuce was tested and almost 20% of the 400 organic lettuce samples had pesticide residues, although significantly less than conventional product.

While it’s important to note that 0.3% of organic lettuce samples tested showed pesticide residue at higher-than-tolerance levels, it’s surprising more than half of people in the industry could be unaware that organic produce was even tested in the PDP annual summary.

As Johnson wrote in his column, “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 Produce Pulse survey results certainly validate The Packer’s concerns with pesticide residue testing, because if 59% of industry insiders don’t even realize organic produce was tested as part of the PDP, how can we expect consumers to put the results of the report and the Dirty Dozen list into proper perspective?

Consumer view

Perhaps even more interesting, though, is that of the 12 fruits and vegetables targeted in the Dirty Dozen list, Produce Pulse respondents report almost no consumer quality complaints.

Only 3% of survey participants noted problems with spinach, while little more than 1% reported problems with apples or kale/collard greens, although the complaints might not have even been related to pesticide residues.

Survey-takers reported no consumer complaints whatsoever with the other nine commodities targeted by the EWG in the Dirty Dozen.

Of the people we polled last year regarding the items in question for their pesticide residue issues in the 2010 Dirty Dozen list, 15% said their company or store had received a complaint about the food safety of those particular fruits and vegetables, with 9% of survey participants noting a complaint about spinach, 6.5% on imported grapes and 3% on strawberries.

Less than 3% of last year’s survey respondents reported consumer issues with quality of other commodities on the Dirty Dozen list.

It’s apparent more and more members of the produce industry are becoming agitated with all the Dirty Dozen hype, considering it information that is misleading.

Some verbatim responses to the latest Produce Pulse survey questions:

  • It’s a sales plan to convince the public to buy organic.
  • Obviously this is a needless scare tactic. Statistically speaking, it appears that the origin of samples, sample size and methodology of everything tested is highly questionable and therefore, flawed. The bias is clearly pre-determined to erroneous.
  • (This is) a nice attempt to scare consumers into buying organic, but they had best not create fear of buying conventional produce or business is going to suffer big time.
  • (I) don’t believe most of it and think organic is just as bad or worse than (conventional) produce.
  • I hate to see consumers bypass fresh fruits and veggies on a study that can be interpreted in different ways. I also don’t like that this list is then copied to blogs and other websites with the Top 12 most contaminated and the (15) safest items list.
  • (About) 99.99% of our food is deemed safe for eating, yet 1,000 people a day die from smoking related illness. Where should we be concentrating our health efforts?

However, some survey participants also spoke up in favor of the PDP report and the Dirty Dozen list.

  • (This is) another example of how critical timely and honest industry response does help.
  • I think that it is a great tool for customers to understand that there are serious health consequences to consuming produce that are grown with high levels of pesticides, and that there are alternatives to these items.

Here’s a novel idea: How about using the Clean 15 list to do some positive promotion for the fresh produce industry, including conventional produce?

dgalbraith@thepacker.com

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