Commentary

Scaring Consumers Away from Good Health

By Alex Avery
August 28, 1998

The Environmental Protection Agency has always excelled at accentuating the negative. Now it is doing so at the price of public health.

This fall, the EPA will require brochures on the dangers of pesticides in food to be displayed in major grocery stores — possibly right in the fruit and vegetable cases. The result: consumers will be needlessly scared away from one of the best health habits known — eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The brochures are part of a 1996 federal food safety law. Under that law, the EPA must “inform the public of the risks and benefits of pesticide use on food.”

It’s a silly idea. A four-page brochure can’t begin to cover the “risks and benefits of pesticide use.” What most people want to know is whether or not supermarket food is safe. That’s all. And a brochure will hardly satisfy those who are concerned about pesticides.


…[T]he EPA’s fidelity to science has been quite limited. From radon and asbestos to second-hand tobacco smoke, the agency has demonstrated a preference for hysteria over objective science.


When the idea for the brochures was first raised, it didn’t seem so silly to the nation’s fruit and vegetable growers and retailers. Only a few months before, the National Research Council had driven the last nail in the coffin of the “pesticides-cause-cancer” argument; it had produced an exhaustive report concluding that the natural compounds in food may pose a greater consumer health threat than pesticide residues. Those industries probably figured that the brochures would reflect this positive conclusion.

But the EPA’s fidelity to science has been quite limited. From radon and asbestos to second-hand tobacco smoke, the agency has demonstrated a preference for hysteria over objective science.

A draft of the first brochure tells consumers that pesticides cause “birth defects, nerve damage, cancer and other toxic effects in laboratory animals.” This statement is followed by decontamination recommendations such as “peel fruits and vegetables to remove wax, dirt and pesticides” and “cook or bake foods to decrease pesticide residues which may have been absorbed.” The brochure even implies that meat is unsafe by telling consumers to “trim fat from meat and skin from poultry and fish because some pesticide residues collect in fat.” Finally, the brochure ends with an endorsement of organic foods, all of which leaves the distinct (and false) impression that fruits and vegetables grown with pesticides aren’t safe.

The problem is that organic foods cost considerably more than foods grown using synthetic pesticides, and there is no evidence anywhere that organic foods are safer or more nutritious.

The latest studies indicate that consumers can cut their cancer risk in half by eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day — whether they were organic or grown with synthetic pesticides. Only 9 percent of Americans meet that recommendation.

Last year, I asked Carol Browner, administrator of the EPA, whether the brochures wouldn’t harm public health by needlessly scaring consumers away from fruit and vegetable consumption, especially in light of the NRC report. She responded by saying that it was mainly a “consumer right to know issue, so that mothers could decide for themselves what was right for themselves and their children.”

I suppose — since this is simply a “consumer right-to-know” issue — that we can soon look forward to brochures that discuss the risks from natural food chemicals. After all, consumers have a right to know that the limonene in oranges, the caffeic acid in fruits and vegetables and many other naturally occurring food chemicals cause “birth defects, nerve damage, cancer and other toxic effects in laboratory animals.”

Ms. Browner and the EPA are simply using consumer fear as a tool in their long campaign to eliminate pesticides no matter what the cost. In 1993 Ms. Browner stated that “the most important thing is to reduce the overall use of pesticides. By doing that, we will automatically reduce risks and we won’t have to spend all this time worrying about lots of complicated things.”

In their zeal to rid the world of pesticides, it seems as if one of the “complicated things” the EPA and Ms. Browner don’t have time to worry about is public health.

Alex Avery is director of research and education at the Center for Global Food Issues in Churchville, Virginia, a project of the Hudson Institute. This column is based on an article in the current issue of Regulation magazine.