Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

Is it the Snickers or the Dirty Dozen that weighs on fresh produce demand?

Is the Environmental Working Group or Doritos contributing more to the obesity epidemic?

Or is it none — or all — of the above?

This is an appropriate week to consider these questions.

In fact, I asked a question of the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group:

What’s the biggest drag on consumer demand for fresh fruits and vegetables?

The choices:

A. Price

B. Pesticide residue fears

C. Microbiological safety fears

D. Other (explain)

Speaking to option B, EWG published the eighth version of its “Shoppers Guide to Pesticides on Produce” June 19, and again the publication of the Dirty Dozen list attracted its share of unquestioning media fawning and another measure of withering criticism from industry advocates.

The news release from EWG was predictable enough, with terms like “pesticide loads,” “worst offenders,” and a note about “disturbing concentrations of pesticides” in baby food.

As Marilyn Dolan observed, consumer press headlines that same day about the EWG Dirty Dozen list included “Is the produce you eat covered in pesticides?” and “Terrifying toxic fruit list will change the way you eat.”

Dolan, executive director of the Watsonville, Calif.-based Alliance for Food and Farming, assembled a panel of experts for a press teleconference to present the speculative case that consumers are turning away from produce and toward unhealthy food because of the negative messaging.

The alliance issued a research report titled “Scared Fat: Are consumers being scared away from healthy foods?”

Are shoppers turning away from conventional produce if they can’t afford organic fruits and vegetables?

If you are afraid to have a conventional strawberry, what are you going to have?

Hopefully not “Fruit by the Foot,” but perhaps so.

In the online survey of 800 adults, nearly one-tenth of low-income consumers polled said they would reduce consumption of fruits and vegetables after hearing negative messaging about pesticide residues. Another 9% said they didn’t know what they should do.

What percentage of those surveyed fell in the “low income” designation — 25%? 10%? And then only a tenth of that slice said they would reduce their consumption.

That’s a very small percentage — and positive news.

The idea is that consumers have been listening to the soundtrack of media coverage of the Dirty Dozen list for years. Some of those consumers can afford to buy organic and they will. For those who cannot afford organic, how good do they feel about conventional apples? After all, EWG placed apples as the “worst offender” of the Dirty Dozen.

What about the feel-good superfruit blueberries? Conventional blueberries tested positive for 42 pesticide residues, EWG said.

Thanks for the buzz kill, Ken Cook.

Alex Formuzis, vice president of media relations for the EWG, said if consumers pick Doritos over fruits and vegetables, it is not because of pesticides. In fact, he said he was “100% certain” that any decline in fresh produce consumption is not attributable to the EWG shoppers guide.

Don’t bet the DC mortgage on that 100% certainty, Alex.

Christine Bruhn, consumer food marketing specialist in the Food Science and Technology department of the University of California-Davis, will have none of it.

She was particularly passionate during the alliance press teleconference about the Dirty Dozen, stating that one of her university colleagues had looked at the Dirty Dozen list and found the level of pesticides on those commodities was 1 million times lower than the amount fed to an laboratory animal every day of its life with no ill effect.

That same analysis found that substituting organic for conventional produce made no appreciable difference in levels of risk.

Bruhn said there is a general assumption by the public that organic products are more nutritious, better for you and more environmentally sustainable.

“There’s no data to support those views,” she said.

Dolan was asked by one reporter during the teleconference if she feels she is waging a losing battle in response to the blizzard of headlines about the Dirty Dozen. She said it is tough for the group to get its message heard.

Perhaps less so now than years ago.

Success should be counted in small measures, such as the balanced NPR story titled “Why you shouldn’t panic about pesticide in produce.”

What’s the biggest drag on consumer demand for fresh fruits and vegetables?

Check out the poll results to see what your cohorts think. In my view, the communication efforts of the Alliance for Food and Farming are an important counterpunch to the Dirty Dozen.

Even more elegant and fierce communication and promotion of fresh produce is necessary to move demand to higher ground.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.