I recently wrote an article criticizing Consumer Reports for their “stop eating pesticides” piece. In short, the non-profit manipulated USDA’s annual pesticide-residue data to rank produce based on how safe it is. It then concluded–obviously without understand the organic program–that consumers should buy organic produce whenever possible. I speculated that CR wanted to copy the success of EWG’s misleading “dirty dozen” list.
Apparently the article rankled some feathers over at CR. I received an email from Jen Shecter, CR’s senior director of Content Impact & Outreach. Jen’s letter mentioned CR’s logo accompanying the article (my AGDAILY editor chooses the photos and he handled this complaint). But she then complained that my article contained “a number of inaccuracies.” She said CR didn’t copy EWG’s methodology and they acknowledged organic’s higher price tag.
I was originally taken aback by her email. Inaccuracies? I pride myself on making sure I accurately report on these things, especially if I’m going to criticize it. That’s how I establish trust with my readers. Did I miss something? Did I misstate something? I quickly pulled up my article and compared it to CR’s website.
It turns out I hadn’t messed up. Jen either didn’t read very closely, wasn’t paying attention, or really didn’t understand what CR reported. So I decided to respond to set the record straight. Here’s what I sent (in full except for mentioning the logo issue):
I never stated that you used the same methodology as EWG. I said you copied their idea for a super-scary list of “dirty” food. I understand EWG has had quite a bit of success for their list, so perhaps you were hoping for the same result. But I acknowledged that you used the same data collected by the USDA, which routinely shows that consumers have nothing to worry about when it comes to pesticide residue.
You did mention that organic food production costs more. But the remaining claims about organic pesticides are false. Organic farmers use pesticides, and aren’t required to use “non-chemical” solutions first. Nor are organic pesticides safe for humans or the environment. That statement shows a fundamental misunderstanding of chemistry. Everything is dangerous at the right dose, including water. The exact same thing can be said for conventional pesticides — they’re safe for humans and the environment.
Unfortunately, I can’t take your concerns of food safety seriously when I see these types of statements. You’ve also used this sensationalist misinformation regarding genetically modified crops. Perhaps it’s the “experts” that you’re relying on. If you would like to talk to some individuals that aren’t on the payroll of “Big Organic,” let me know and I’ll put you in touch.
If you think Jen responded by asking for those references, you’ll be disappointed. Instead she responded with this:
[The National Organic Program (USDA) rules] specifically state that “ The OFPA and USDA organic regulations specifically prohibit the use of any synthetic substance in organic production and handling unless an exemption for using the synthetic substance is provided on the National List.” We also pointed out the many cases where conventional produce represented good choices for consumers. You may respectfully disagree with Consumer Reports, but we ask for accuracy in what is written about us and our work.
I’m honestly perplexed by the response and the point she was trying to make. There are lots of organic pesticides that farmers can use. There’s also a couple dozen synthetic pesticides exempted from the organic prohibition. And while CR’s actual ranking found most conventional food was “excellent,” it also used shocking language for no other reason than to scare people. For crying out loud the entire thing is entitled “stop eating pesticides.”
But that isn’t the worst part. I’m mostly astonished that she had the gall to say that I could respectfully disagree with CR, as long as I’m accurate.
Let’s be blunt. Consumer Reports just published a guide accusing millions of family farmers of poisoning people. It’s. A. Lie.
Our regulatory agencies carefully and thoroughly regulate pesticide use. Our applicators are trained and certified. USDA performs annual testing to make sure we’re meeting those requirements. Our farmers are doing an amazing job producing the most nutritious and bountiful food supply in history.
Yet Consumer Reports wants to lecture me about being respectful and accurate? The irony and hypocrisy is astounding. CR thinks it can say anything it wants about farmers–no matter how terrible, misleading, or false–and that’s totally fine. But if anyone calls them out on it, that’s a problem.
I’m so sick and tired of farmers being a punching bag for these folks. I’ll just respectfully suggest that Consumer Reports sticks to reviewing vacuum cleaners, toasters, and refrigerators. Leave farming to the experts.
Dale Greene says
Good job Amanda! I’ve been away from the skeptical movement for a while and am disappointed to see how little progress the science based community has made in educating the consumer. Keep up the good work!
Excellent reporting! Thank you for standing up to these bullies who use scare tactics to mis educate consumers they say they are protecting.
Eric Bjerregaard says
Thanks and well done. You are way more “respectful” than I would have been. The bottom line is that organizations like this are wrong and/or dishonest. Thus when they demand respect. They can give no specifics. They “think” that all who call them out are disrespectful.
Thanks so much for persisting with this challenge. When I shifted my opinion on GMOs and began to share my thinking with my friends, no one shifted with me! That was disappointing. But the shocking piece came when I found out that half of my anti-GMO friends were also anti-vaxxers. Even the school nurse in our group couldn’t persuade folks that vaccines are safe.
The stature of Consumer Reports is such that their anti-science stance is actually important and they need to change. Ag needs to persist in challenging them.