Consumers Union, the Yonkers, N.Y., publisher of Consumer Reports (CR), has just published a scary sciency story, “How Safe Is Our Produce?”  It warns that children may be poisoned by eating small amounts of fresh peaches, apples, squash, and other farm crops.
The problem is, it’s not clear that the elaborate statistical foundation for the article is science. As important, Consumers Union (CU), which brags incessantly about the independence of its research and findings — the bases of its credibility — fails to acknowledge in Consumer Reports that the questionable study was supported by a funder, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, of Charlottesville, Va., that promotes a particular — one might even say alarmist — viewpoint:
Pesticide residues in produce pose a high risk of disrupting human and animal endocrine systems and may be causing other toxic damage.
The one-year Jones fund grant was $125,000, “with an option to seek a second year’s funding at the same level.”
Funding Not Revealed
This arrangement was described in a CU internal publication last summer. But it is not revealed either in the CR article or on CU’s advocacy website, which contains the technical report on which “How Safe Is Our Produce?” is based. The website does acknowledge support from the Jones fund and two other grantors, Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia, and the Joyce Foundation in Chicago.
All this funding information is withheld from the magazine article’s readers, and the potential conflict of interest appears to have been ignored by the newspapers, which published uncritical stories about the report under scare headlines:
- “Some Fruits, Vegetables Endanger Kids, Study Says” — Los Angeles Times.
- “Fruit, Vegetable Pesticide Called Dangerous to Kids” — Newsday. ” . . . Children Found Most at Risk” — Washington Post.
The whole effort is a reprise of the Alar scare of a decade ago, charges Michael Fumento, a shrewd science analyst who works for the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., in a piece in the Wall Street Journal .
The scientific problem with CR’s study is simple: The authors created a standard that they call the Toxicity Index (TI) to translate Federal findings on pesticide residues on produce into markers for human hazard. That’s a clever and interesting thing to do. But their TI is based on several unproven assumptions.
For example, pesticides that Jones Foundation officials think are “endocrine disrupters” are weighted at three times the risk of other toxic and carcinogenic chemicals — an assumption not backed by data.
Weakness Acknowledged on Web
Fumento and others have raised a number of objections to CR’s TI and the methods used in the analysis. But one need go no further than CR’s own technical paper on its website, called “Do You Know What You’re Eating?” by biologist Edward Groth, III, Ph.D., of its public service division, and two co-authors to see these difficulties acknowledged. The report states:
Our TI does not measure risk per se ….
What is the health significance of a high TI score? The only solid scientific answer to that question is, we are not sure. 
This informative disclaimer does not, however, appear in CR’s pages. The CR article says merely:
For our analysis, we devised a toxicity index that integrates all of these health risks [including type, duration and level of exposure] and reflects the actual amounts of pesticides detected on produce.
PROBE asked Groth by phone if the TI construct had been reported in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. He said no.
“It’s a CR innovation,” he explained.
The study’s purpose, he explained, is to use the now-excellent pesticide residue data from federal agencies to determine relative risks of various foods and various pesticides. Consumers then can make informed choices of their own and their children’s risks in eating various foods, and industry and government can identify the most risky foods and chemicals in order to reduce the hazards.
“The toxicity index does let people see in a clear-cut way what are the risk-drivers,” Groth said. It identifies “which pesticides in which foods are really contributing to the toxic loading in a significant way.”
The CR study found the highest — allegedly most dangerous — levels of pesticides in fresh peaches, winter squash, and, an order of magnitude lower than the peaches, apples. These data suggest, at the worst, that the advice to wash raw fresh fruit is astute, and that it might be wise to peel fresh peaches — as many people already do, since the peel has little peachy flavor.
By and large, in fact, the news from the CR study is good, not bad — fresh produce is safer than it appears to be, and may be rapidly getting safer:
- Contrary to some recent spot reports on raspberries, for example, imported produce in most cases had lower pesticide levels and TI ratings than domestic produce.
- Very few of the pesticides detected were illegal. Only 1% of samples in 1994, and 5% in 1997 violated U.S. safety standards, which are set at one one-hundreth (1/100) to one one-thousandth (1/1000) of the lowest level that injures test animals.
- One pesticide, methyl parathion, accounts for “almost all” the total toxicity for peaches, and frozen green beans, and much of it for apples and pears. But methyl parathion levels already are rapidly decreasing under governmental pressure. The report cites federal statistics showing a 34% decrease in the frequency of methyl parathion detections on peaches between 1996 and 1997, and a 44% decrease in its use, albeit the average residue levels increased five-fold in this year.
- The feds analyzed pesticide levels in 27,000 food samples, but found that only a minority of products carried what CU claims are risky pesticide levels.
Read in toto, the CR article and website report are far more encouraging perhaps than CU and its funder, the Jones Foundation, would have readers believe from the headlines and the way the article was written. The reason, critics say, is that CU and Jones are lobbying for the Environmental Protection Agency to interpret the 1996 federal Food Protection Act in the most stringent possible way.
We’re not against that. But we think all parties are obligated to make their case with scientific data, not scare stories. CR’s credibility is based on its perceived independence of interest groups. Its concealed support from a funder who appears ready to pay more for alarming results cuts deeply into CU’s credibility.
We faxed a proof of this article to CU for their comment. Groth, speaking for CU, said “we think your central thesis — which is that our report was biased by our funders — is unfair.”
Jones, he noted, did not renew CR’s grant. The Hudson Institute, he said, is funded by the chemical industry — which could influence Fumento’s views.
In its front-of-the book boilerplate, CR brags that it is “a source for unbiased reporting about products… health and nutrition. . . .” But it is silent about the independence of its findings vis-a-vis funders who underwrite articles like “How Safe Is Our Produce?” that appear in its pages. They, like companies, have agendas, which may — or may not — reflect research and objective analysis.
Here, from their recent annual reports, are the views on pesticide toxicity of the three foundations that funded CU, the CR’s publisher, to the tune of a half million dollars for the pesticide report in the March issue:
The W. Alton Jones Foundation “seeks to …. eliminate systemic contamination” to “protect children from the threats of pesticides and endocrine disrupters.”
The Joyce fund “promote[s] large-scale change in agricultural … processes to reduce the production, use, and discharge of toxic substances into the environment ……
Pew Charitable Trusts work “to raise public awareness about the potential risk to human health and the environment of toxic chemicals.”
Consumers Union couldn’t agree more with its funders, and its “science” shows it!
- 1. How safe is our produce? Consumer Reports 64(3):28-31, 1999.
2. Fumento M.
Fear of fruit. The Wall Street Journal, Feb 26, 1999.
3. Groth E III, Benbrook CM, Lutz, K.
Do you know what you’re eating? An analysis of U.S. Government data on pesticide residues in foods. Consumers Union Public Service Projects Dept, Feb 1999.
This article was adapted from the May 1999 issue of Probe, Mr. Zimmerman’s monthly report on science, medicine, and public policy.