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An apple a day . . . or not

Almost every day I put an apple in my son’s lunch because it’s one of the few fruits he eats.  While I worry about his limited palate, I’ve always thought, “well, at least he’s eating an apple a day,” as the saying goes.  So the USDA’s announcement that apples contain the highest concentration of pesticide residue of any produce – and are ranked number one on the Environment Working Group’s list of the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables – was a punch to the gut.

Scott Kilman reports in the Wall Street Journal, “federal testing … found pesticides in 98% of America’s second-most-popular fresh fruit, the highest rate among the produce screened by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a yearly survey.” Kilman also notes that “48 different pesticides the USDA found in its sampling of apples.”

Accompanying the unnerving data were explanations aimed at cushioning the blow.  Apparently, the levels of pesticide residue are considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Those assurances don’t pacify parents worried that the supposedly healthy food they are feeding their children – or eating themselves – might make them sick (according to the U.S. Apple Association, in 2008, the average U.S. consumer ate almost 50 pounds of fresh and processed apples).

Last year, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) — a sweeping food safety law that gives the FDA more authority to make sure the food we eat is safe before it gets to our dinner table.  The FDA says it is working on a rule to carry out the FSMA’s mandate and ensure “the safe production, harvesting and packing of fresh produce.”  Curiously, the FDA website highlights only producers’ comments, despite the fact that environmental and consumer groups were among the approximately 800 parties who filed comments on the rule.  Not surprisingly, producers urged the FDA to tread lightly in setting guidelines and warned of the cost of too much regulation.

Following the release of the survey on pesticide residue on produce, the Pesticide Action Network and other public health, food-security, sustainable-farming, farm worker and conservation groups have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to step up enforcement of laws to protect against pesticide contamination and push Congress to strengthen those laws.

For its part, the FDA should highlight the concerns of consumer advocates and environmental groups about food safety, not just the responses of growers and suppliers.  FDA is supposed to be looking out for our health – not just the bottom line for agribusiness.

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