Hit-and-Run Pesticide News

The New York Times reported this week that “apples, peppers, celery and cherries top a list compiled by an environmental research organization of the 12 fruits and vegetables it considers the most contaminated by pesticides.”

The brief 201-word article is an excellent example of hit-and-run reporting designed to scare rather than inform readers.

The article breezily reported that the Environmental Working Group (search) used government data to “rank pesticide contamination” for 46 fruits and vegetables. “The most-contaminated list also includes imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries” while “the 12 considered least contaminated are asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, kiwi, mangoes, onions, papayas, pineapples and sweet peas,” reported the Times.

The article reported that EWG’s so-called “dirty dozen” list remains the same as their initial list published in 1993, but concluded that “the availability of organic produce (search) has made it easier to avoid most pesticides.”

But what constitutes “pesticide contamination?” Is it a cause for concern? Who is the Environmental Working Group? Was anyone else involved in producing the report?

Keep reading this column because you certainly won’t get any answers from the Times’ story.

The term “pesticide contamination” may be effective when it comes to scaring Times readers, but it doesn’t accurately reflect the results of EWG’s report.

No unsafe levels of pesticide residues were detected on the fruits and vegetables. EWG labeled fruits and vegetables as “contaminated” with pesticides if any trace levels of pesticide residues were detected on the fruits and vegetables.

Using today’s sophisticated and sensitive laboratory equipment, it’s possible to measure the minutest levels of pesticide residues. But such low levels aren’t dangerous and are, in fact, typically far below pesticide residue levels permitted on fruits and vegetables by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Significantly, the EWG did not report that any pesticide levels over a 10-year period -- even for one piece of produce -- exceeded EPA safety standards.

Although the Times plugged organic produce in its article, the irony is that, through their dispersion in the environment, pesticides can also be detected on organic produce. If the mere detection of pesticides on conventional produce were to make it unsafe, then organic produce would be unsafe, too.

The Times egregiously misled readers by parroting without explanation the EWG’s loaded term, “pesticide contamination.” Of course, had the Times made an effort to defuse “pesticide contamination,” readers might have wondered why the article was published in the first place.

The Times’ description of the EWG as a mere “environmental research organization” -- a label that implies impartiality -- is laughable.

As discussed in a previous Foxnews.com column and in research by the Center for Consumer Freedom, the EWG is one of the most notorious left-leaning, junk science-fueled and fearmongering eco-activist groups.

Times readers are told that miniscule amounts of pesticide residues that fall well within safety standards are “contamination,” yet the EWG is just an “environmental research organization?”

The Times is less bland when describing groups the newspaper differs with politically.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (search), for example, was disparagingly described this week in a Times article as a “conservative research group that receives industry financing.” Times consumer reporter Marian Burros dismissively refers in her articles to the American Council on Science and Health as “industry financed.”

EWG is not the only interested party that drew from the Times a “Get out of any journalistic scrutiny free” card.

The EWG report was financed by Stonyfield Farm, the largest organic yogurt manufacturer and hardly a disinterested party. Stonyfield markets its products by scaring consumers with labels claiming, “No yucky stuff … standards prohibit the use of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones” and “yogurts made without the use of antibiotics, hormones and toxic pesticides.”

Such labels create the false and misleading impression with consumers that Stonyfield’s dairy products are somehow better and safer than conventional dairy products. Stonyfield misleadingly implies that other dairy products have had pesticides, antibiotics or hormones added.

The Times reported that apples, cherries, peaches, raspberries and strawberries were among the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide contamination.

Coincidentally (or not), Stonyfield just happens to offer organic yogurt in these very flavors. How convenient.

Was Stonyfield’s sponsorship and business interest mentioned in the Times article? Of course not.

The New York Times famously boasts on its banner, “All the news that’s fit to print.” I guess that sounds better than, “Only the news that we want to you to know.”

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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