Fear of Fruit.

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The Wall Street Journal  ·  Alar

Ten years ago today, 60 Minutes aired a scientifically unfounded report that set off a scare over the pesticide Alar, used on apples. Now one of the supporting players in that frightfest, Consumers Union (CU), publisher of Consumer Reports, has decided it’s time for a sequel. They’ve branched out to warn against not just poisoned apples but poisoned peaches as well.

CU is still putting fear before fact and ideology before science, and the media are just as credulous. "The same fresh peaches, grapes and apples that supply vital nutrients for growing children are also exposing millions of Americans to unsafe levels of potentially toxic pesticide residues," began the Washington Post’s article on the subject.

The CU report claims to be "one of the most comprehensive studies ever undertaken of pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables." Published with an accompanying article in the March issue of Consumer Reports, it ostensibly aims at educating parents. But it appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to influence the Environmental Protection Agency during a crucial time for making decisions as to what pesticides will be effectively banned.

Arbitrary Criteria

The report relies on a rating system that assigns a "toxicity index" score to 27 foods. The number is based on an arbitrarily selected set of criteria. "This all looks very impressive and comprehensive on paper but really has no valid scientific precedent," says Carl Winter, director of the FoodSafe Program at the University of California at Davis.

Example: For pesticides listed as suspected "endocrine disrupters" — chemicals that may cause harm by mimicking hormones — the toxicity index "was multiplied by a factor of three." Why? "In our judgment, potential endocrine disruption is a more important aspect of a chemical’s toxicity than even potential carcinogenicity."

A better explanation is that much more is known about cancer causation than about endocrine-disruption potential. "There is no method yet for doing a risk assessment on chemicals that have possible endocrine active effects," says Robert Golden, a Bethesda, Md., toxicologist who formerly worked for the EPA. "So there’s no justification scientifically for putting any sort of a factor in, three or otherwise."

Interestingly, the source CU used for determining what is an endocrine disrupter is no official database but rather the 1996 book Our Stolen Future. One of the three underwriters of the CU report was the W. Alton Jones Foundation, whose director was one of the book’s co-authors. "For them to come up with a list pulled from a popular book and say these are endocrine disrupters, this isn’t science," says Mr. Golden. "This is all politics."

Another of CU’s novelties was to confuse allowable daily doses with chronic ones. The daily or "acute" dose is the most someone can be legally exposed to in a given day; the chronic dose is how much a person can receive daily spread over a lifetime. Obviously, chronic doses are lower because they average some days with higher doses and others with none at all. But, notes Mr. Winter, the CU report often uses the chronic dose in place of the acute one, so that "if a child exceeds this [chronic dose] one day, it’s called an ’unsafe’ exposure. At the least, that’s naive. At the worst it’s outright dishonesty."

Such nuances generally didn’t make it into the media coverage of the report. Independent scientists were virtually ignored, though environmentalists were called upon for comments. UPI paraphrased one, Todd Hettenbach of the Environmental Working Group, saying that "just a bite or two of an apple, peach or pear" could "cause dizziness, nausea and blurred vision" in a child if the fruit had been treated with the commonly used pesticide methyl parathion. Shades of Snow White.

Mr. Hettenbach is "totally off the wall," says Laura Plunkett, a Phoenix neurotoxicologist who works as a consultant to the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and private industry. "Unless it were 100% soaked, absolutely dripping with methyl parathion, there’s no way that a few bites of fruit would be a problem."

Healthy or harmful?

The worst aspect of CU’s rating system and the media coverage thereof is that it has no outside reference point. Yet the media were mightily impressed. "Seven fruits and vegetables," Reuters reported, "had up to hundreds of times higher toxicity than other foods analyzed." But hundreds of times a virtually nonexistent risk can still be virtually nonexistent. "When you use real data it’s hard to make a strong case that pesticides are posing real health threats to infants and children," says Mr. Winter.

Even CU found that more than 95% of the time detected pesticide residues were within legal bounds, and even when they weren’t it was usually because a pesticide happened to be on a crop it wasn’t registered for. Yet those bounds themselves are incredibly conservative, generally based on taking a dose below that which causes any discernible effects in lab animals and dividing it by 100. "If the food supply has such conservative tolerances and only a little is above, that’s pretty darned good," says Mr. Golden.

This also applies to the idea that children and infants are inherently at greater risk from pesticides. This assumption runs throughout the CU report and is intrinsic to the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, which the EPA is currently implementing. But it’s false. "In some cases they could be more susceptible and in other cases less susceptible," says Mr. Winter.

Consider the CU report’s biggest bugbear, methyl parathion. "The delicate developing nervous system is not so delicate as one would be afraid of," says Stan Schuman, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. "That includes in the womb," he says. The real neurotoxic threats are heavy metals such as lead and mercury: "Once you get past the heavy metals, you just don’t see anything."

’It’s Empowering’

CU’s technical policy director, Ed Groth, said the report is "not frightening. It’s empowering. It’s about giving consumers information to make choices for themselves." But the headlines suggest it’s really about scaring parents. "Pesticide Danger Seen in Fresh Fruits, Vegetables; Children Found Most at Risk" (Washington Post). "Some Fruits, Vegetables Endanger Kids, Study Says" (Los Angeles Times). "Fruit, Vegetable Pesticide Called Dangerous to Kids" (Newsday).

The only entity the report was meant to empower was the EPA, to interpret the Food Quality Protection Act as severely as possible against pesticides and farmers. CU’s own representatives indicated as much at the group’s press conference. "We think it’s time for the EPA to get on with it," said CU pesticide policy analyst Jeannine Kenney. "Put this tough new law into action."

No, the CU report isn’t about kids; it’s about stirring up fear of chemicals. And it’s hard to think of any more obvious consequence of this report than to dissuade parents from feeding their children fresh fruits and vegetables. "People need to know that all the evidence just keeps pointing towards eating more fruits and vegetables," says Mr. Golden. "What Consumers Union has done, this is dangerous stuff."