A mother weeps as she is told that her children are at risk because of pesticide residues found on the produce from her local supermarket -- the same produce she is feeding her family.
This is one of the several emotional images that millions of Americans watched on the May 18 episode of the CBS news magazine "48 Hours," which many in the produce industry are calling blatantly inaccurate, sensationalistic and shoddy journalism.
The program was the second part of an investigative series entitled "Is Your Food Safe?" that focused on the effects of pesticide residues on children, parasites in tap water and the use of growth hormones in milk production. The first part was aired in February.
In the May 18 program, reporters followed four families in Ohio on shopping trips to their local supermarkets. The reporters bought the same items that the families purchased and then conducted residue tests on the products. Those tests on the produce items revealed multiple pesticide residues at levels high enough to put children at risk, the reporters said.
The program also highlighted information from the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, which charges that the government doesn't consider risk to children when setting tolerance levels for pesticide residues on produce.
The day after the CBS program aired, the advocacy group held a press conference in Washington at which it released a new report called Washed, Peeled -- Contaminated. The report uses 1992 data from the Department of Agriculture to show that washing or peeling produce does not remove or decrease the level of pesticide residues. As a result, the study claims, it is not unusual for infants and young children to consume residues from multiple pesticides on a single produce item.
With the release of the report, the Environmental Working Group is encouraging consumers to demand from their supermarkets that they carry more organic produce and refuse to purchase products from suppliers who use "particularly hazardous pesticides."
The report and the "48 Hours" program drew heated response from the produce industry.
"They clearly don't understand the produce industry," said Kathy Means, director of communications for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. "They say children aren't considered when setting tolerance levels when in fact they are one of 22 groups" that the Environmental Protection Agency takes into account when regulating pesticides, she said.
"When they say that EPA doesn't consider the diet of children, they are dead wrong," said John McClung, vice president for issues management at the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., the produce industry's other major national trade group.
"The 1993 National Academy of Sciences report on pesticides and children said that there are some data gaps, therefore there may be some risk that we don't know about," McClung said, referring to the issue of setting tolerances for children. "We support filling in those gaps."
Richard Wiles, director of agricultural pollution prevention at the Environmental Working Group, who was interviewed on the "48 Hours" program, told SN that the current regulatory system does not specifically consider infants and children. "It uses a one-size fits all number. That number in no way fits in with the needs of children," he said. Wiles added that he too was basing his remarks on the 1993 National Academy of Sciences report.
How scared were consumers the day after viewing "48 Hours?" Not very, according to Means.
Of the dozen or more retailers PMA contacted following the broadcast, few reported alarm among their customers. "Some retailers were getting calls about Bovine Somatotropin in milk and even on Calgene's new [Flavr Savr] tomato," she said. "But I don't think were having anything like a major scare yet." Both PMA and United said they support practices that would reduce unnecessary uses of pesticides and would make production and products better and safer.