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Indigestible Organic Propaganda

By Alex Avery - April 11, 2006 12:00 AM

Consumer Reports recently released its semi-annual organic foods promotional edition, which claims that consumers would benefit from eating certain organic foods to "reduce exposure" to supposedly harmful pesticide residues. While the promotional is long on comparative residue numbers, it's woefully short on perspective.

With a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), two scientists with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and three university "environmental health scientists" last year spent $1.25 million taxpayer dollars on a paper published in a government-sponsored health science journal, and subsequently trumpeted across the land by the Associated Press and most major U.S. newspapers.

The researchers collected and examined the urine of 23 children looking for traces of the harmless breakdown products (metabolites) of non-persistent organophosphate (OP) pesticides. These are the most powerful, and potentially most worrisome, insecticides. Using ultra-sensitive instruments, they found OP pesticide metabolites at an average of 2-5 parts per billion in the children's urine. When they switched the kids to organic fruits and vegetables, the OP metabolite traces disappeared within 24 hours.

The research is actually good news on two fronts. First, only miniscule traces of pesticide metabolites were found. A part per billion is equal to one second in 32 years. Second, it confirms that pesticides are rapidly detoxified and cleared from children's bodies -- just as we thought they were.

But instead of using these findings to reassure parents about the safety of the food supply, the researchers tacitly promoted organic foods. Consider this line from their paper,

"Although we did not collect health outcome data in this study, it is intuitive to assume that children whose diets consist of organic food items would have a lower probability of neurological health risks, a common toxicological mechanism of the OP pesticide class."

This sentence is an organic food marketers' dream. Most parents would interpret this as a warning that neurological health damage from pesticides is "common" and that organic foods are substantially safer. Neither is true. What is entirely missing from this sentence is the context of dose. While a nickel might be 500% more valuable than a penny, neither amounts to great wealth. So it is with pesticide residue risks.

The CDC researchers who coauthored this paper also published another paper last year showing that even the theoretically most exposed 5 percent of children would still be exposed to less than half of the EPA-acceptable daily lifetime exposure, or chronic Population Adjusted Dose (cPAD). The average kid would be exposed to one-fifth this amount.

How safe is that? The cPAD for the most "toxic" OP pesticide, chlorpyrifos, is 1/1,000 of a non-toxic daily dose in dogs and rats -- the most sensitive animal species tested. Thus, even imaginary fruitarian children consume 1/2000 (0.05%) of a harmless dose and your typical kid consumes only 1/5,000 of a harmless dose. For comparison, one 500mg aspirin is 1/70 of a toxic dose, so we're truly in the realm of alarmist fiction in portraying these exposures as anywhere near worrisome.

I called the lead author -- Dr. Chensheng Lu of Emory University -- to ask if he had any evidence that the children were exposed to anything but a tiny fraction of the ultra-cautious, non-toxic EPA reference doses. He responded by saying that "the EPA reference doses aren't the gold standard for safety."

He's got that right. The EPA reference doses are already so low and so completely in the realm of the theoretical that they are more or less arbitrary. Well-reasoned scientific arguments can be made to set them either higher (because no ill-effects have been observed in any animal species at higher doses) or lower (because one-tenth is intuitively assumed to be ten times safer). Dr. Lu and his fellow co-authors promote organic foods based on the latter "relative risk" argument, but they have not a shred of evidence that any real world risks are reduced by consuming organic food.

Dr. Lu says his team is now developing a "complex model" to convert the urine metabolite levels they measured to estimates of actual food residue exposure. But why create a Rube Goldberg scheme to estimate something we've been directly measuring for years?

The EPA and FDA annually test thousands of food samples for pesticide residues. In 2002, for example, the FDA's Total Diet Study, which tests for pesticides in prepared foods (washed, peeled, or cooked as appropriate) using the most sensitive residue detection methods concluded that "the pesticide residue levels found were well below regulatory standards. [A specific survey] of baby foods from 1991-2002 also provided evidence of only small amounts of pesticide residues in those foods."

Decades of data showing our food supply is safe are apparently not healthy for the careers of environmental scientists. So, good news is twisted to bad using complex methods and jargon. They hide their sophistry behind the flawed concept that less is always meaningfully safer. They examine urine instead of food, metabolites instead of actual pesticides, fantasy risks rather than real ones.

To steal the words of David Martosko at the Center for Consumer Freedom, Consumer Reports should stick to rating toasters and lawnmowers and leave food safety to the real experts at the USDA, FDA, and EPA.

Alex Avery is Director of Research at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.

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8 Comments

No Subject
Wow, good to know the urine of 23 children is safe. This equates out about $54,000 per child's urine. Aside from the gross waste of money, isn't 23 too small a sample size to be studying? Let alone spend 1.25 million?

Consumer Reports
You said "Consumer Reports should stick to rating toasters and lawnmowers".
They don't do that very well either....

Fighting propaganda with more propaganda
When it comes to food and my body I'll go along with "relative risk". The kids who ate organics had zero levels of the metabolites versus some levels when they ate food with pesticides. Thats all I need to know to know organics ARE better for you.

We don't really know that even very small levels of pesticides don't do harm. There may be no obvious evidence of a direct correlation, but how do we know ingestion of pesticides in childhoood will not contribute to illness later in life?

"The EPA and FDA annually test thousands of food samples for pesticide residues. In 2002, for example, the FDA's Total Diet Study, which tests for pesticides in prepared foods (washed, peeled, or cooked as appropriate) using the most sensitive residue detection methods concluded that "the pesticide residue levels found were well below regulatory standards. [A specific survey] of baby foods from 1991-2002 also provided evidence of only small amounts of pesticide residues in those foods."

Washed as appropriate is the key phrase in there. I wonder how many people wash and peel as appropriate. Proper washing removes much of the pesticide residue, but I doubt most people properly wash fruit and vegetables with soap and water.

"Decades of data showing our food supply is safe are apparently not healthy for the careers of environmental scientists."

There we go, finally get to the real point of writing this article. To attack people who don't follow your ideology. We assume our food supply is safe because people aren't falling over dead after eating. We don't really know the details of how substances react and affect our body on a cellular level, over the long-term. Maybe the scientists went too far in promoting organics in their report, so what? I'd rather they push in that direction than ignore possibilities because of an ideology.

It's a free country
Bobjones, it is totally fine with me if you are worried enough about pesticide residues to pay more for organic produce.

You're absolutely correct that science cannot prove there are no risks from the few parts per billion of this or that pesticide. Understand, however, if you're going to be logically consistent with this ideology that you'll have to examine the thousands of naturally-occuring carcinogens and other natural "toxins" in produce and food.

The National Academy of Science's National Research Council concluded in 1999 that the theoretical risks from these natural chemicals are as great or greater than the synthetic residue risks.

But of course, these natural compounds are rapidly detoxified in our bodies by the exact same enzymes (p450 enzymes) that rapidly detoxify the synthetic pesticide residues. In fact, bioengineers have put p450 enzymes in bacteria and created microbes that are able to decontaminate hazardous waste sites! Pretty cool to know that our bodies are so resilient.

Live and let live and buy what you will. But the science indicates that there is literally next to nothing to worry about from pesticide residues in our food. If there was, how come we're all living so much longer and the age-adjusted cancer rates have declined for stomach and other diet-related cancers (all, in fact, save for those connected to tobacco or where new diagnostic tests have led to finding previously undiagnosed cancers)?

Cheers,
Alex

No Subject
"Bobjones, it is totally fine with me if you are worried enough about pesticide residues to pay more for organic produce."

Absolutely right. Its a personal choice each person must make. Its equally fine with me if others don't worry about pesticides. For people I know and love I want to make sure they're educated before making a decision. Even if our awareness is to know the science might be conflicted, or that we don't know the truth for sure. Like with everything else, people don't fall over dead after eating uncleaned grapes, so its tough to get the masses to give it concious thought. Smoking is a good parallel example, just more obvious. Only after years of effort, lawsuits, advertising, etc., etc. has the danger of smoking sunk in to the masses and made a difference in our behavior. People don't fall over dead after smoking a cig either. Some people even smoke for years and feel no ill effects until later, or never. We take the risk. I'd say its common knowledge now the danger of cigarettes, the science is clear. But wouldn't you know, the science apparently isn't clear with secondhand smoke, because some still argue that secondhand smoke is not dangerous. The science isn't clear with pesticides, so people with an agenda can argue that we shouldn't worry about it.

Thats what I'm taking the author to task for, the agenda. The piece is really pretty mild in its attacking nature, but its enough I felt a desire to respond. The article isn't balanced in the sense that it criticizes the scientists for exaggerating the benefits of organics and stops there. Its propaganda.

"Understand, however, if you're going to be logically consistent with this ideology that you'll have to examine the thousands of naturally-occuring carcinogens and other natural "toxins" in produce and food."

The good thing is I'm not ideological. Actually, I don't think this line of thinking is logically consistent. We are talking about synthetic substances versus natural substances. We certainly should know what natural toxins are in what food, certain people must avoid certain foods even because of natural toxins. Who knows, market forces might dictate we develop ways to purge natural toxins from foods so everyone can eat them. I would have no problem with that, I might even try it if they could keep the nutritional value. It really doesn't affect me, or anyone I'm close to, so I don't care too much about it.

I don't mean to attack you AAvery, but I couldn't help notice the irony of a couple statements you typed:

"You're absolutely correct that science cannot prove there are no risks from the few parts per billion of this or that pesticide."
versus
"But the science indicates that there is literally next to nothing to worry about from pesticide residues in our food."

I don't disagree necessarily with what you're saying. I agree the science doesn't point to obvious problems with pesticide residues. I'm saying we don't know enough to know for sure.

We're living longer because of medicine. I didn't know there was such a thing as "diet-related cancers". Is it just any cancer having to do with a part of the body that gets touched by food when we're eating? I mean, let your food be your medicine. The food we eat has a role in anything that happens in our body. Not 100% of the time mind you, I'm sure there are cases where we could eat all the right stuff and still get sick. Or vice versa, eating the right food helps keep a person from getting sick. This is speculation, common sense, the truth is we don't really know the details. We're just babies man, we're just babies. I don't know cancer rates, but it seems to me that cancer, and other illnesses, are more common today than 10 or 20 years ago. Maybe pesticide residues have something to do with that, thats wild speculation, but we don't know for sure.

I totally agree, live and let live. But I'll push back when I see propaganda.

I wrote the piece, bob
Bob, you wrote: "'You're absolutely correct that science cannot prove there are no risks from the few parts per billion of this or that pesticide.'
versus
'But the science indicates that there is literally next to nothing to worry about from pesticide residues in our food.'
"I agree the science doesn't point to obvious problems with pesticide residues. I'm saying we don't know enough to know for sure."

I'm sorry, Bob, perhaps I didn't communicate well: Science can NEVER prove a negative (i.e. it can't ever prove zero risk in anything because it can never rule out unknown hazards). You want absolute assurance of zero risk and repeat several times that "we don't know for sure" if pesticide residues on food are safe. You're right. We don't know for sure. Science can't ever give absolute assurance of safety on anything. Ever.

What science can do is give us a pretty good idea how big or how small the risks are, and the science says they're infintesimally small in this case. So there really was no inconsistency when I wrote.

One of the fundamental rules of toxicology was stated by Paracelsus in the 16th century: "All substances are poisons. Thre is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy." Lest you doubt this, consider that every year for the past 5, somebody has died during a major marathon in the U.S. (including the Boston Marathon) due to overconsumption of water. Other common "toxic substances" are salt (a half pound will kill you easily), aspirin (70 pills), alcohol (1/2 gallon), etc.

So "toxins" and "toxic substances" are all around us.

If, like me, you were trained in plant physiology, you'd know that plants are full of secondary metabolites, many of which are natural pesticides. Plants are kings of chemical warfare. They must be because they can't run away. You'd know that when I talk about "natural toxins" in food, I'm talking here about cancer-causing chemicals that are consumed in comparitively huge amounts in comparison to syn. pesticide residues and that are an inherent part of the crop/food. (Look up Dr. Bruce Ames, inventor of the regulatory "Ames/Gold" cancer assay. Roughly half of all natural compounds tested are carcinogenic using the Ames/Gold high-dose rat tests. Ames doesn't have much faith in his test revealing much because it's so crude)

Caffeic acid in lettuce, tomatoes, etc. Limonene in citrus fruits. These aren't things you can "filter" out and they're in many foods at thousands and thousands of times higher levels than the synthetic pesticide residues. But that doesn't make them a health threat. Why? Because the doses are still comparitively tiny.

Our bodies have evolved to deal with reasonable doses of these natural chemicals. As I explained, the very evolutionary mechanisms (p450 enzymes) that have evolved in us to deal with these natural plant "secondary metabolites" also easily deal with OP and other pesticide residues. A research group just put a human p450 enzyme in test plants in the lab and the plants were able to handle being sprayed with a number of herbicides, showing that these enzymes are VERY effective, handling doses millions of times what would be consumed as food residues.

But hey, I'm not trying to sway your purchasing decisions. If you think you're getting something meaningful for the organic food's 50%-100% price premium, have at it. But protecting yourself from 1/5,000th of a non-toxic dose doesn't seem like money well spent to me.

Cheers, Bob
Alex Avery, Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues

Look up the ld50's of salt and caffine
Not to mention that tomato seeds and beans contain cyanide. Forget about the pesticides in amounts found on foods. It is not a problem.



real world risks
Hi! Just got to the part where the author says there is no evidence of any "real world risks" from eating non-organic food.
But it tastes so much better!
Sorry, but i grew up in France, though British, and have been spoilt to the extent of caring what my fruit and vegetable look like, smell like, as well as who grew them, where, how, and the various ways of cooking them and savouring them. Organic fruit and vegetable have been a considerable step forward for people like me.
Its called civilization. I wish it on everyone.
Cheerio,

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