UPDATE 5/26/11: The USDA released its Pesticide Data Program annual report yesterday after a five-month delay. Fortunately, the agency didn't cave in to intense lobbying efforts on behalf of pesticide companies and chemical farmers to alter the data. The pesticide residues are being reported in the same manner they have been since 1991. However, the Environmental Working Group is continuing to investigate the $180,000 federal grant given to the industry to combat efforts to educate the public about pesticide residues on food. Read the backstory below.
RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The produce industry wants you to eat chemical-laden food, so much so that it's now strong-arming government agencies into withholding information about pesticides on food. A coalition of 18 produce and pesticide trade groups has sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to reform how the agency reports pesticide residues so that information can't be used by nonprofits who advocate for eating organic food, despite loads of evidence suggesting that pesticides on food are linked to health problems, including attention deficit disorder and lowered IQ.
THE DETAILS: Every year, in late January or early February, the USDA issues the annual report of its Pesticide Data Program, a survey of pesticide residues on food. That information is used by, among other agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration to determine exposure levels of certain pesticides and to find out how much of certain pesticides are being used on food. The data are also used by nonprofits like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and The Organic Center to put out reports, such as EWG's Shoppers Guide to Pesticides, that help people find out which fruits and vegetables have the highest or lowest overall pesticide residues.
This year, however, the report is five months late, and all fingers are pointing at the pesticide and produce industries as the reason. As part of a lobbying effort that began last year, chemical-agriculture groups have been pushing the USDA to change the way it reports its pesticide residues because the data have "been subject to misinterpretation by activists, which publicize their distorted findings through national media outlets in a way that is misleading for consumers and can be highly detrimental to the growers of these commodities," according to the letter sent to Vilsack. These same groups allege that public education efforts like the EWG's Shoppers Guide amount to "fear-mongering" and "actually make the work of improving the diets of Americans more difficult because they scare consumers away from the affordable fruits and vegetables that they enjoy," one industry group states on a website designed to promote conventional produce.
"This is the first time, to our knowledge, that there's been pressure by pesticide and produce industries on officials in the federal government to change the way they report residue data," says EWG spokesperson Alex Formuzis. And that likely has to do with organic food's increase in market share of late. While all organic foods and beverages make up a tiny 3.7 percent of total U.S. food sales, organic produce makes up 11.4 percent of total fruit and vegetables sales, according to the Organic Trade Association. "That's compared to the conventional produce industry, which has seen sales flatline," Formuzis says.