NAS And EWG Studies Require Scrutiny

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist…It is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

—John Maynard Keynes
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936)

For several years now, the trade had been anxiously anticipating the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on children and pesticides. Produced at the request of Senator Patrick Leahy, the report was anticipated with enormous fear. The reason: an Alar-type scare could be in the offing, whereby negative media attention would scare consumers away, this time not from just one commodity, but from the entire fresh produce department.

It didn’t happen – partly because the media knows it was hood-winked on the Alar issue and was fairly intent on not being misled again. Trouble also was averted because the industry knew what was coming and had worked to insure that, at least in the public statements and sometimes in the reports themselves, some positive information about eating fruits and vegetables was included.

But, strangely enough, the fact that the report was focused on all produce, rather than focused on only one item, probably served to reduce its effect. When you look carefully at the apple sales declines following the 60 Minutes report on Alar, and of the attendant media coverage, an interesting fact surfaces. A big part of that decline was due to the decision of supermarkets to de-emphasize apples in their marketing by reducing display sizes and, in general, promoting other items.

Because the NAS report focused on all produce items, department directors couldn’t decide to de-emphasize promotion of any one item. Had the report been on the issue of pesticide residues on apples and children, it is very possible that all that media coverage would have led many retailers to reduce promotion of apples until the heat died down. You might have seen an “Alar II”, despite the feelings of the media and the efforts of the trade associations.

Now the report is out and the industry has relaxed; no media disaster, no dramatic decline in sales. If the mission was to deflect acute disaster, the industry can pat itself on the back. Mission accomplished.

But, in the strange way that these things often work out, the lack of a hysterical response to the NAS report may mean trouble for the industry in the long term. The Alar report on 60 Minutes and the NRDC report it was based on attracted so much attention and was scrutinized so severely that it was discredited as a source for serious policymaking.

In contrast, the NAS report on pesticides and children has never undergone the same type of serious scrutiny. As such it sits out there as a credible resource, ready to be used for policymaking. In fact, the President’s latest plans for a “health-based” standard of approval for pesticides show the distinct influence of this report upon the recommendations.

In this issue, PRODUCE BUSINESS undertakes the sort of project that only we would endeavor to do in the produce industry. We deconstruct the NAS and the privately funded Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports and subject their ideas to the kind of critical scrutiny that tests the veracity of their claims.

This wasn’t easy to do. It took months of work by a very gifted and intelligent author, but it was necessary to do. In reading the coverage in both trade and consumer press of this issue, one thing became clear; scarcely anybody who was writing about this report had read it. At most they read an executive summary, more often just a press release about the report, or perhaps the article in The New York Times.

This couldn’t be allowed to stand; the industry needs to understand these reports and to have their conclusions subjected to the withering scrutiny of incisive minds. It was an expensive project for PRODUCE BUSINESS; nobody bought an ad from us because we wrote about this subject. It will be an exhaustive read for you, to be studied at great length by those who really want to know the truth.

But whether you personally read the article or go the whole length and request the complete white paper on the subject (free of charge to those who request it), at least you will know we did the industry the service of getting the truth out about this report.

Most of the produce industry is made up of practical men who run their business and do their jobs quietly. They work hard and are understandably happy to have headed off a crisis. But ideas have consequences, and the ideas published in the NAS and the EWG reports will also have consequences. These ideas will influence academia and government, and in the end, these ideas will influence policy.

It is hard for a CPQ, a PMA or United to raise money to combat ideas, but, unless discredited, bad, incorrect ideas permeate the culture and influence the way in which we organize our affairs. As such if we want our society to make wise decisions, we can’t allow wrong-headed ideas and unsupported claims to go unchallenged.

The truth is the data is so bad that no policy, other than a decision to obtain better data, can reasonably be drawn from the NAS report.

For many, the objection to pesticide residues is a function, not of a reasoned approach to the dangers lurking here, but to a deeply felt hostility toward industrial capitalism, a yearning for a world of pastoral beauty unobscured by people trying to improve themselves. I would hold that these viewpoints are directly opposed to everything that has made this country a dream for people around the world.

If we are to make a better world, we need not only determination but good information. By analyzing these reports, we set the standard for American policymakers to show them what’s usable in these reports and what’s not, what can be reasonably drawn from them and what cannot.