Fear-Based Messaging Reduces Produce Consumption – Both Organic and Conventional

New Study Finds Fear-Based Produce Safety Messaging Negatively Impacts Low Income Consumers’ Produce Consumption

 

New peer reviewed research, “Low-Income Shoppers and Fruit and Vegetables: What Do They Think?” published in Nutrition Today, shows fear-based messaging tactics used by activist groups and some organic marketers that invoke safety concerns about non-organic produce may be having a negative impact on produce consumption—fruits and veggies—among low income consumers, according to the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF).Alliance for Food and Farming logo

Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Center for Nutrition Research surveyed low income consumers to learn more about what terms and information about fruits and vegetables may influence their shopping intentions. Among the key findings, misleading messaging which inaccurately describes certain fruits and vegetables as having “higher” pesticide residues results in low income shoppers reporting that they would be unlikely to purchase any fruits and vegetables – organically or non-organically grown.

illinois-institute-of-technology-institute-for-food-safety-and-health“We were surprised to see how informational content that named specific fruits and vegetables as having the highest pesticide residues increased the percentage of shoppers who said they would be unlikely to purchase any type of fruits and vegetables,” says Britt Burton-Freeman, associate professor of food science and nutrition, ITT’s Center for Nutrition Research. “The concern is that depending on the structure of the communication about pesticides and fruits and vegetables, this could turn people away from wanting to purchase any fresh produce.”

“Despite efforts by the health community, consumption of fruits and vegetables is stagnating,” says Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D, R.D. and president, Produce for Better Health Foundation. “This new study shows what we have been concerned about for some time, that safety fears may be another barrier to consumption of these healthy and nutritious foods. The impact of the fear-based messaging on low income consumers is especially troubling since many don’t have access or can’t afford non-Produce for Better Health, produce consumptionorganic produce.”

The findings are also concerning since the safety claims carried predominantly by groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Only Organic about pesticide residues have been repeatedly proven to be scientifically inaccurate. For the last 20 years, EWG annually releases a so-called “dirty dozen” list which urges consumers to eat only organic versions of popular produce items accompanied by misleading and unscientific claims regarding pesticide residue levels. A peer reviewed analysis of EWG’s list entitled, Dietary Exposure to Pesticide Residues from Commodities Alleged to Contain the Highest Contamination Levels and published by AFF showed that substitution of organic forms of produce for non-organic produce did not result in any decrease in risk because residue levels are so minute on these fruits and vegetables, if they are present at all.

“Their tactic clearly isn’t working and it’s actually backfiring since this research shows that consumers may react to their message by deciding not to buy any produce at all – organic or non-organic,” says Teresa Thorne of the AFF. “For the benefit of consumers, especially low income consumers, this study shows it is time for groups like EWG to rethink their strategy for promoting organics and move away from tactics intended to scare consumers from buying the more affordable and accessible produce items,” Thorne says.

john-hopkins-bloomberg-school-of-public-healthThis IIT research compliments the peer reviewed study by John Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, They Just Say Organic Food Is Healthier”: Perceptions of Healthy Food among Supermarket Shoppers in Southwest Baltimore,” published in January 2015 [orig. Dec. 2014] in the journal, Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment. Those researchers conducted interviews with study participants to learn more about the way organic food is understood within consumers’ definitions of healthy food. John Hopkins researchers also focused on low income consumers because “this group is particularly important demographically given the disparate burden of diet-related diseases they carry and the frequency of diet-related messages they receive.”

The study authors also found conflicting health and safety messages, including those about pesticide residues, were having a negative impact on consumers. Among their findings and recommendations: “The issue of organic can swamp or compete with other messages about nutrition, as evidenced by the data presented here. Perceiving that there is an overwhelming amount of sometimes contradictory information about healthy eating could make some consumers defeatist about trying to eat healthily. Given the potential implications of competing messages about healthy eating, it is important that those who want to improve food production techniques and those who want to improve nutrition cooperate to create consistent messaging about healthy eating.”

Dr. Burton-Freeman reached a similar conclusion. “Hearing that the majority of shoppers in this survey trust dietitians/nutritionists, scientists and physicians for health and safety information about fresh fruits and vegetables, this is an important opportunity for these professionals working in low-income populations. It is an opportunity to educate shoppers about organic and conventionally grown produce, particularly about best practices for washing, storing and preparing all fruits and vegetables to maximize their enjoyment and nutritional value and minimize their confusion and safety concerns.”

“Hopefully the peer-reviewed research from IIT and John Hopkins will have an impact on groups like EWG especially since the science clearly shows both organic and non-organic produce is very safe and can be eaten with confidence,” AFF’s Thorne says. “And, decades of nutritional research primarily conducted using non-organic produce shows that a plant rich diet leads to better health and a longer life. So choose either or both organic or non-organic produce, but choose to eat more every day.”


The Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) is a non-profit organization formed in 1989 which represents organic and conventional farmers and farms of all sizes.  Alliance contributors are limited to farmers of fruits and vegetables, companies that sell, market or ship fruits and vegetables or organizations that represent produce farmers.  AFF’s mission is to deliver credible information to consumers about the safety of all fruits and vegetables.  AFF does not engage in lobbying nor does it accept any money or support from the pesticide industry.  In the interest of transparency, AFF’s entire 2011 tax return is posted on safefruitsandveggies.com.


See also:

Scared Fat: Are Consumers Being Scared Away from Healthy Foods?

Individuals May Consider Organic an Important Factor When Defining Healthy Food

University College of London: Eating 7 or More Servings Reduces Risk of Premature Death by 42%

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Dirty Dozen…Really?

Dirty Dozen Does Disservice

 

Following the April 12, 2016 release of the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) annual Dirty Dozen list, Teresa Thorne, a spokesperson with the Watsonville-based Alliance For Food and Farming, a non-profit organization which exists to deliver credible information to consumers about the safety of fruits and vegetables, conversed with California Ag Today’s Patrick Cavanaugh, farm news director and deputy editor,

California Ag Today: Let’s talk a little about the Dirty Dozen list that the EWG just published for 2016.

DPR on Food Safety
DPR on Food Safety

Thorne: They’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and it is concerning to us because they’re putting out misinformation about the safety of conventionally grown produce. We know that the products on this list are among the most popular among families, especially children. EWG targets them, and their efforts really scare moms and consumers away from conventionally grown. It makes no sense to us; I mean, both organic and conventionally grown are very safe. We should all be consuming more every day for better health. That’s really the message for consumers. This list—all it does is serve to confuse people.

California Ag Today: It’s all a big scare tactic to try to get everybody to think that only organic food is safe, right?

fruits&veggies more matters logo
Fruits & Veggies – More Matters

Thorne: We strongly believe that organic food is very safe, but we maintain the same for conventional. And it’s interesting also too, because in a recent study that really focused on Manhattan, the researchers found—and we did blog about this—that organic was not as available as they had previously thought. So, what happens to the mom who wants to buy strawberries for her child’s lunch, but only conventional strawberries are available? Now she’s scared because of what EWG has stated in really inflammatory language this year—over the top. Now what is she supposed to do? Her store doesn’t carry organic strawberries. Availability is very much an issue, as well accessibility and affordability. Conventionally grown still is the most accessible and affordable [produce]. So, to scare people away from that really does a disservice to consumers.

California Ag Today: Yes, and food safety experts from the USDA and California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), a department of the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agree that any small risk from the trace [below legal thresholds set by the EPA] levels of pesticides found in fresh produce should not keep you from the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. DPR tracks food for pesticide residues, and they find 99 percent of all the fruits and vegetables grown in California—whether they’re organic or conventional—are safe to eat and we should be eating more of them.

Thorne: Absolutely, and that’s what’s also interesting; EWG—and we’ve called them on this in the past and they still have not changed—does not link, in their report, directly to USDA studies. They state over and over that they base their results on this USDA Agricultural Marketing pesticide data program (USDA PDP), but they don’t link to it. In what world do you not link to a study that, you basically state, you base your entire Dirty Dozen list upon? We find that quite odd.

We think the reason they don’t link is this simple: People will see that the USDA clearly states that residues do not pose a food safety concern. And that is in direct contrast to what [the EWG is] saying.

California Ag Today: Of course, if we wash the fruits and vegetables we eat, it helps. We should always wash produce to get the dirt off and talk about food safety in our own kitchens.

SafeFruitsandVeggies logoThorne: That’s right. Conventional and organic alike, wash them before you eat them. It’s a healthful habit that everybody should follow for various reasons. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearly states that you can reduce or eliminate any residues that may be present on fruits and vegetables, simply by washing.

California Ag Today: One last question, Teresa. You’ve been terrific. The EWG has been losing some strength in their message over the years because the media is getting sharper and better at challenging the contradictions in their reports. We’ve got the Alliance for Food and Farming’s new SafeFruitsAndVeggies website now, and you guys are reaching out to the media, saying “Let’s be reasonable; let’s look at this from a scientific point of view, not an emotional point of view.” Do you want to comment on that? While they’re not being picked up as much anymore, they keep trying, now with strawberries at the top of the list, right?Strawberries1

Thorne: Yes, we think they’re using the tactic of putting another kid-popular fruit to re-spark interest. In fact, we predicted it in a blog a few weeks ago, in which we said interest from the media is declining because more reporters and bloggers are actually reading the USDA PDP report, seeing what it says. So, we actually predicted in our blog that they would do something like this. Our number one prediction was they would have a new number one on their list, and it would, of course, be a kid-popular fruit.

So, it will be interesting to see. We’re still early on in the process to see if they have had any success with that, but we believe that that was a tactic [EWG] tried to employ to revive very lagging media coverage on this list. They used to enjoy widespread media coverage back in the day.

__________________________

Resources:

Setting Tolerances for Pesticide Residues in FoodsUnited States EPA

Pesticide info: What You Should Know About Pesticides, “Pesticides and Food: How We Test for Safety,” California Department of Pesticide Regulation

The Pesticide Data Program: Helping Monitor the Safety of America’s Food SupplyUSDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)

Pesticide Residue Calculator, Alliance for Food and Farming

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EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” Contradicts Its Own “Food Scores”

Teresa Thorne Speaks Against EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” List

By Charmayne Hefley, Associate Editor

There are constant concerns plaguing consumers about the safety of the foods they eat. As a result, consumers turn to the internet as a way to educate themselves, and oftentimes visit sites such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for information. Teresa Thorne of the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) said EWG is self-contradictory in its statements of food safety.

“Nine months ago, the Environmental Working Group released the Food Scores database which ranks organic and conventional fruits and vegetables among the best foods for consumers and urges them to eat more,” Thorne said.

And, EWG published the following statement on its website:

No, eat your fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables.

“So it’s ironic that four or five months later,” Thorne continued, “they released their Dirty Dozen list again and called those same conventionally grown fruits and vegetables they just said were safe and that consumers should be eat more of, ‘dirty’ and ‘toxin-laden’ in the new release.”

In addition, EWG reports widespread pesticide contamination among many conventionally grown fruits and vegetables with the explanation that a number of pesticides are EPA-approved for each crop, pesticides have been detected in produce and the USDA data reflects these findings. Elsewhere on their website, EWG acknowledges nearly all analyzed samples (99%) did not contain pesticide residues above legal limits—U.S. EPA safety levels or tolerances. EWG counters with an unsupported statement that ‘legal isn’t always safe’.

When the EWG released their food scores database, the AFF commended the group on finally adopting the same message as health experts. Thorne said AFF requested the EWG stop confusing consumers through their ‘Dirty Dozen’ list.

“We called on EWG when they published the Food Scores database to stop issuing the Dirty Dozen list,” Thorne said. “It’s conflicting information and it only confuses consumers.”

Thorne said not only do decades of scientific research back up the safety of consuming conventionally grown produce, the research shows that eating more fruits and vegetables in general prevents disease and premature death.

AFF reports on its website:

Recent research has shown that around 29% of consumers are not purchasing fruits and vegetables due to concerns about pesticide residues. Further, the Centers for Disease Control recently issued a report that consumption of fruits and vegetables continues to decline.

EWG proclaims, “We definitely recommend eating produce from the Dirty Dozen™ list rather than foods or snacks that are not as healthful, such as fat-, sugar- or additive-laden processed products.” Nonetheless, the deterrent name of their list remains unchanged.

“There’s so much research out there,” Thorne said, “that shows the benefit of eating more fruits and vegetables in your diet—both organic and conventionally grown produce. That’s what the message should be for consumers instead of this conflicting information on safe vs. not safe. It’s really inaccurate and unfair. Conventional and organic fruits and vegetables are safe. We should all be eating more. Let’s work together to get that message out to consumers.”

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