Magazine article USA TODAY

Scaring Consumers Away from GOOD HEALTH

Magazine article USA TODAY

Scaring Consumers Away from GOOD HEALTH

Article excerpt

The Environmental Protection Agency, in its zeal to rid the worm of pesticides, fails to mention the hazards of dangerous strains of food-borne pathogens that may be present in organically grown "natural" foods.

FEATURED AT your local supermarket are unwarranted fear, innuendo, and bad advice from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has begun distributing brochures about pesticides in food at major grocery stores, often right in front of the fruit and vegetable cases. Considering the needlessly alarmist tone the brochures contain, though, the stores ought to display them with the tabloids at the checkout counter.

Instead of helping consumers make wise food choices, the brochures will scare readers, especially parents of young children, away from one of the best health habits known--eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. The latest studies indicate that consumers can cut their cancer risk in half by eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Yet, a mere nine percent of Americans currently meet that recommendation.

The brochure, "Pesticides and Food: What You and Your Family Need to Know," is the result of a Federal food safety law enacted in 1996 mandating that the EPA must "inform the public of the risks and benefits of pesticide use on food." To put it bluntly, the brochures are a silly idea. It is ridiculous to try and present the "risks and benefits of pesticide use" in a four-page brochure. What the majority of the public wants to know is whether or not the food at the supermarket is safe to eat--which it is--and a brochure hardly will satisfy those who already are concerned about pesticides.

When the idea for the brochures first was raised, it did not seem so bad 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 with an exhaustive report on the health risks from pesticide residues in food and water. The NRC, part of the prestigious National Academy of Science, concluded that the risks from pesticide residues were so low that even the natural carcinogens in food may pose a greater health threat. The report further concluded that neither residues of synthetic pesticides nor the natural food chemicals pose any appreciable health risks. Actually, they identified overeating as the biggest health threat from food, citing it as the single largest factor for cancer risk. In light of this rosy report from one of the most respected scientific bodies in the world, the food industries likely figured that the proposed EPA brochures would reflect this positive conclusion.

However, the EPA never has bound itself to scientific reality. From acid rain and asbestos to second-hand tobacco smoke, the agency clearly has demonstrated a preference for hysteria over objective science. (In fact, a Federal judge reprimanded the EPA for jumping to conclusions about the health effects of second-hand tobacco smoke, which EPA's own science did not support.)

So it is with the new consumer brochures. One can not read past the second sentence before the scare campaign begins: "While pesticides have important uses, studies show that some pesticides cause health problems at certain levels of exposure." Never mind that the "certain levels of exposure" required to cause health problems are tens of thousands of times higher than the levels found on food in the U.S. This sentence sets the tone for the rest of the brochure. Following a common political strategy, the brochure highlights the risks to children from pesticide residues. The cover is of four children having a picnic next to a wheat field. The heading on the first page, "Infants and children may be more vulnerable to pesticide exposure," is followed by three points sure to raise alarms in any thoughtful parent's mind. "Since their internal organs are still developing and maturing, infants and children may be more vulnerable to health risks posed by pesticides. …

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