Produce safety: Dish up the facts, not scare tactics


May 24, 1994|By Colleen Pierre, R.D. | Colleen Pierre, R.D.,Special to The Sun

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Last week's "48 Hours" did an "expose" on pesticides and the safety of the American food supply. They actually had a mother in tears because she fed her child grapes, which the host led her to believe were highly contaminated and dangerous. Give me a break.

While pretending to be balanced, actual air time and editing created an alarming, though distorted, picture of killer fruits and vegetables raining destruction on our kids. And it attempted to create controversy where there is none (in the name of ratings?). In fact, there is widespread agreement that our produce is safe, even for kids, and important to their health. There is also agreement that improved research and monitoring are in order.

Nobody wants to eat unnecessary pesticides, mostly because we fear they cause cancer. But we have no evidence to show this, a fact admitted by Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group, the prime promoter of the unsafe food supply theory. In fact, he even said that "the risk from a diet of Twinkies is far greater than the risk from a diet of fruits and vegetables, even with these pesticides on them."

So what we're dealing with here is fear of the unknown. That in itself is not a bad thing. Experience tells us we'd better be asking these kinds of questions. But terrorizing ourselves is not in our own best interest, especially if it puts a lid on our healthy behaviors.

What we do know is that the fruits and vegetables that we've been eating all our lives (and for some of us that's a long time!) are our No. 1 protector against cancer. During the show, cancer expert Dr. Bruce Ames pointed out that people who eat a total of five fruits and vegetables a day have half the cancer rate of those who eat less. In the United States today, we average only 3 1/2 servings daily. Clearly, we should be running toward the produce department, not away from it.

On camera, Carol Browner, an administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was set up as an insider dissatisfied with the system. She said that as a mother, she wanted a declaration from Congress that our children would be protected. Then she went on to admit that the EPA is already doing that.

A year ago, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued an exhaustive report concluding that some regulatory improvements should be made to strengthen the food safety system, but that the food supply is safe.

As Ms. Browner noted, the EPA has begun putting the NAS recommendations into effect, including increased monitoring for pesticide residues in foods most commonly eaten by children. The NAS report has triggered other action as well.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC), a nonprofit organization in Washington, notes that nearly half of all the produce sold in the United States is grown in California and monitored for safety by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which has one of the most stringent pesticide regulatory programs in the country, spent the last year reviewing the NAS study. On May 17 it issued its own report, indicating that "the current California and federal pesticide regulatory systems adequately protect infants and children from risks posed by pesticide residues in the diet."

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant the the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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