Finding The Pesticide Solution

Our cover story this month is titled: “Pesticides: Hype or Hazard?” This is as good a place as any to start an analysis of this troubling issue because the problem this issue poses is evident when we realize the difficulty in trying to determine to what extent, if any, pesticides pose a threat to health and longevity.

When I was a little boy, my mother demanded that we wash all our fruit before we ate it. She felt that this ‘washed off the dirt’ and seemingly made the fruit safe to eat. Today, this common-sense standard of what is safe and what is not is increasingly threatened by the accomplishments of modern technology. It is now possible to measure extremely fine residues of pesticides and preservatives; parts per million, parts per billion, even finer if needed. Thus, we now know that almost everything we eat contains some residues that most people would rather not ingest if they have a choice.

This does not mean that the presence of a minute amount of residue of an undesirable substance is unhealthy or unsafe. The human body is capable of ingesting and excreting small amounts of chemicals which if consumed in large quantities, would be toxic. What it does mean is that we now live in a world in which technology forces us to make conscious decisions about the food we eat. Whereas once we could comfort ourselves with knowing that our best measuring devices showed the produce we eat to contain no residue of pesticides, today our measuring devices are so sophisticated they almost always show a residue. The question then becomes: How significant is the residue?

Obviously, most people would find it difficult to decide whether levels of pesticide residues were significant or insignificant, so the government stepped in. The authorities define which pesticides are acceptable, what commodities they may be used on, and to what extent the pesticides may be used. This is meant to assure the public that all produce sold is safe to eat and free of “significant” pesticide residues.

But the system has problems. The first problem is that of enforcement. Even if the government always knew what was safe and in what amount, they inspect only the smallest percentage of fresh produce going to market. It is asking for far too much to expect consumers to accept that nobody ever breaks the rules, either intentionally or inadvertently; that no mistakes are made. The second problem is that the government does not really have convincing scientific evidence as to the effects of pesticide consumption on human beings to set truly convincing safety standards. They seem to have fairly good information on acute symptoms, those that arise immediately after consuming a pesticide-ridden item, but the data on chronic symptoms, those symptoms which may not reveal themselves until the pesticide has accumulated for many years, is unclear in humans. To find the real blind tests over many decades. These would be tests where two sample groups had to eat a given fruit every day for years, and neither group would know if they had been given a fruit with pesticide residue or a pesticide-free fruit. Now, because the scientific testing behind the safety requirements is not certain, the simple fact that fruit may be below acceptable government levels is not that convincing a claim. The third problem is that many people no longer have faith in government experts and institutions. They do not believe everything the government tells them. The fitness craze has been, in large part, motivated by a desire on the part of people to take control of their own body and their own health. They no longer will listen when they are told that something is O.K. They have questions and they want answers.

Part of the problem may be that they want a simple answer to a complex question. The question is not whether an item is “safe” or “unsafe” to eat, but rather is it “more safe” or “less safe”? When looked at from the perspective of society at large, other questions come into play as well. What are the costs and benefits of using pesticides? There is no easy answer to these questions.

The important thing to note here is the implications this holds for the marketing of produce. If we can no longer say clearly that an item is “safe” (it poses no hazard in any way whatsoever), but rather, we must start explaining the need to use pesticides in order to have fruit in the winter and to have yields that enable us to sell at an affordable price – if we have to explain that although an item has residue on it, it is safe in the quantities consumed normally – if, in other words, we have to get complex then the logical extension will be that produce marketing will get more complex, with people saying different prices for different degrees of health related security.

Perhaps rich people will be willing to pay twice as much for produce if they can get good quality produce which is certified as pesticide free. Perhaps poor people will prefer to run some health risk to get cheap food. In any case, produce is likely to develop some niche marketers.

In fact it already has. Though the reaction when Raley’s, the San Francisco area retailer, brought in Nutriclean to do produce testing was visceral by much of the trade, the truth is that they were doing exactly what a retailer is supposed to do as part of the produce trade: Find customers and bring them into the store. Their vindication can be seen in that retailers all over the country have called in Nutriclean, have started organic produce sections and in general, are trying to deal with consumer concerns over safety.

The great complaint about Raley’s was that by advertising their use of Nutriclean, they were implying that non-Nutriclean certified produce was unsafe and thus needlessly frightening consumers into reducing produce consumption. Now there is a certain truth to this. Anytime you talk about a solution, you draw attention to the problem. But Raley’s saw a chance to assuage their existing customer’s concerns and to attract new customers. In the American system of free enterprise, it is by this type of vigorous competition that our economy manages to produce new and better products that better serve the American consumer. If you believe in capitalism, you have to believe that as a result of the competition for consumer dollars we will wind up with better produce, produce which appeals to more people than it would if everyone stagnated and never risked controversy.

A big part of the problem that has caused this rigorous attempt to adhere to the status quo is the structure of many of our commodity promotion groups, because they go out and advertise that a certain product from a certain state is great, and the truth is that some of it is great, and some of it isn’t. This is why I do not believe the attempts to market a state name as if it were a brand, usually work. Sunkist and other private brands can exist as a brand only because they are able to put their number 2’s under different labels or not sell any second quality produce at all. But when a state goes out and advertises that state’s produce and says it’s the best, and a member of the trade or a consumer buys bad produce from that state, it discredits that whole advertising campaign. What is worse, unlike privately-held brands, there is usually no mechanism for accepting consumer complaints or providing refunds.

In a sidebar to our cover story, David Drum quotes Stephen Pavich, a substantial California grape grower who is focusing on a niche growing organic grapes, as attacking industry leaders for being geared toward mediocrity. Now the truth is that most of the industry leaders are quite smart and know exactly what is going on, but there are institutional problems that preclude them from discriminating between some of their growers and others.

It is one of the ironies of this situation that attention on the pesticide issue was heightened by the recent fast of Cesar Chavez, the union leader. One of the things that make people disenchanted with unions is that they are, generally speaking, institutionally incapable of discrimination among their members. They are patently unable to deal with the idea that two people of equal education can make very different contributions to a company and thus be deserving of very different pay scales.

Similarly, our promotional commissions are unable to voice the idea that one person can have better produce than another, that some people’s produce tastes better than others, that some may contain fewer chemicals than others, etc. The standard line is that everyone’s produce is equally delicious, equally safe and so on.

This brings up two very serious problems. The first is that this is patently untrue. Everyone knows it, and the insistence that it is true causes the industry to lose credibility. The second problem and perhaps the far more serious one is that everyone in the industry is being set up to be tarred by some future disaster.

I remember one time many years ago when a soup company had problems with botulism. The cans of soup were withdrawn from the shelves, and it was highly publicized on TV. However, my family didn’t stop eating soup during this crisis. We confined ourselves to eating other brands. But industry commissions can’t set up these distinctions, and one day, when someone is found to have used an illegal pesticide, or when accepted residue levels are found to have been set excessively high, everyone in the industry will suffer.

So where can the solution be found? Well certainly, United, PMA and the regional or commodity-based trade associations have a vital role to play: They can be important clearinghouses for accurate information. They need to be very aggressive in getting information out to editors around the country to counteract slurs from self-appointed consumer leaders. They need to let editors know that they are available for comment, on the record, regarding the real facts about food safety. They need to develop a sophisticated lobbying plan to enable the industry to fight the undesirable legislation. This means having the whole industry divided up by Congressional districts, and having a system in place to make sure every congressman is contacted by responsible business leaders in his own district when issues of concern to the industry arise.

But the real solution may arise through the confluence of trends riding throughout the industry. The retail side has been first, as retailers have searched out and experimented with various ways of pleasing their customers and attracting new ones, utilizing testing, organic produce and educational programs. The next group may be the brand marketers, those who may be able to get a premium for their produce by differentiating it from others.

This is an important issue. Many believe that produce marketing has boomed because of consumer demand for a safe, healthy product. If consumers no longer perceive produce that way, there is a legitimate fear that per capita consumption could flatten or fall.

Getting out the truth of the story is important, but there must be more. Certain things in our society evoke powerful images, and in the case of pesticides these negative images make it more difficult for the facts to get through. What we have seen with nuclear power in the last decade is an example of the power of symbols to drown our reality.

In our society today, pesticides have a negative image; poison gas, dying birds, the antithesis of healthy and active lifestyle that has become the American ideal. In this column I have intentionally not answered the question of whether, in fact, pesticides do pose a hazard or whether the whole thing is hype. I don’t think it matters very much. Regardless of whether it is hazard or hype, the key thing is to respond to the concerns of the consumer, to relate to their perceptions of the problem. The worst thing that we can do is to stand still, defending the status quo, explaining that everything is great, that there is no need to change. This defensive posture will only result in a whittling away of our industry’s credibility and influence.

The answer, as it almost always is, is to set free the creativity of the people of this great industry. Let the industry not rely solely on associations or government to solve this problem. Let the trade offer to do what it does best, to meet the consumer’s needs in a hundred different ways, using all the tools in our arsenals. Let the message go forth not that we are stagnant, but that we are improving, that every day the produce industry is offering the consumers of the world new choices, utilizing new growing and marketing methods and meeting the challenges of our age.