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Administration officials agree to look at how it releases pesticide residue data

by Joan Murphy | October 19, 2010
WASHINGTON -- Obama administration officials have agreed to look into how it packages the release of annual pesticide data, which can be "misused" by consumer groups to trumpet fruit and vegetables as unsafe to eat, according to Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for the United Fresh Produce Association.

Mr. Gilmer joined staff members Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy, and Rob Neenan, vice president for environmental affairs and sustainability, in an Oct. 19 meeting with high-level officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food & Drug Administration.

USDA has been collecting yearly data on pesticide residues on a range of commodities under its Pesticide Data Program since Congress set up the program in 1991. It publishes annual reports on pesticide residues found on fresh commodities such as apples, bell peppers, cabbage, cucumbers, grapes, lettuce, oranges, hot peppers, cantaloupe and pears, as well as on catfish, eggs and canned spinach.

United Fresh is concerned that the Environmental Working Group has "mischaracterized" the pesticide residue data in its Dirty Dozen list, an annual ranking of the top 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues, Mr. Gilmer said.

"We were gratified to see all three agencies agree that it's not how [pesticide data] should be interpreted," he said. Federal officials agreed to take a look at how data are compiled to make sure the messaging is "clear and concise so it can't be misconstrued," he said.

USDA's primary objective is to encourage consumption of fresh produce, a USDA official said at the meeting. When groups like the Environmental Working Group identify fresh produce as risky, they are challenging the government's pesticide regulatory system, Mr. Gilmer said.

This meeting comes days after the Environmental Working Group and dozens of other groups urged California officials to reconsider awarding $180,000 of specialty crop block grant money to the Alliance for Food & Farming, a Watsonville, CA-based group funded by specialty crop groups to communicate on food safety issues.

The California Department of Food & Agriculture announced Sept. 17 63 grant projects funded by the $17.3 million in specialty crop block grants for fiscal 2010, including the alliance's grant to "correct misconceptions that some produce items contain excessive amounts of pesticide residues."

California's grant description says, "Utilizing sound science backed by a team of nutrition and toxicological experts, the Alliance for Food & Farming will seek to provide the media, the public and various target audiences with information about the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables. The goal is to generate more balanced media reporting and change public perception about the safety of produce when it comes to pesticide residues."

The Environmental Working Group and the other groups say that the money should not go to a "pro-pesticide PR campaign."