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Beach Beat: The main event EWG vs. AFF — no holds barred

Saturday, March 11, 2017 23:09
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The “Dirty Dozen” is in the news again and as usual I’m imaging a remake of the 1967 motion picture with a cauliflower playing Ernest Borgnine’s character, a cucumber in place of Donald Sutherland and some kind of smooth-skinned melon in the role played by Telly Savalas.

I imagine production numbers to rival those in “The Muppet Christmas Carol” where fresh fruits and veggies sang and danced as Michael Caine/Ebenezer Scrooge strolled through an open-air market in 19th Century London.

Alas, no one has produced a produce photoplay about the real-life Filthy Thirteen — the 1st Demolition Section of the Regimental Headquarters Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, of the U.S. Army, which fought in Europe in World War II.

So we are left every spring, longing for fresh and juicy entertainment about patriots past and finding only the ongoing war of words between the Environmental Working Group and the Alliance for Food and Farming to amuse us in our idle moments.

Let me be perfectly clear, I endorse neither group and question the motives of both.

Both groups claim they want to help poor saps like me and you navigate the produce aisle. The AFF is supported by and looks out for growers, packers, distributors and sellers of fresh produce — most in the conventional arena. The EWG is supported by the organic industry.

That being said, I’d have to give this year’s round to the AFF. As has been the group’s practice in recent years, the AFF again got out in front of the EWG. Back in November 2016, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its 25th annual Pesticide Data Program summary, the AFF started beating the war drums.

The USDA report detailed results of pesticide residue tests on more than 10,000 food samples from 600 locations in 10 states. The vast majority of the samples, 97 percent, were of fresh produce. About one-half of a percent — 54 samples to be specific — showed pesticide residues in excess of allowable limits. A full 15 percent had no pesticide residues at all.

The AAF predicted the EWG would again use the USDA report to scare consumers into paying premiums for organic fruits and vegetables by implying that organic certification means no pesticide use. The AFF made hay, citing a study that showed low-income people interpret information about pesticide residue as meaning they should avoid all fruits and vegetables.

The AFF also pointed out that as usual, more than 99 percent of the food tested in 2015 had residues well below the tolerances established by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Such stats seem unambiguous. But the AFF has maintained its drumbeat, and on cue, the EWG started singing its song again this past week.

“EWG’s analysis of tests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly 70 percent of samples of 48 types of conventional produce were contaminated with residues of one or more pesticides,” according to the group, which has trademarked its annual list of the 12 produce commodities with the highest residues as the “Dirty Dozen.”

The group’s “analysis” consists in large part of counting the number of samples with positive results and using the percent key on a calculator. Any consumer can read the USDA’s report and indulge in such “analysis” by clicking here. If the raw numbers on the page aren’t enough to scare you, the EWG senior analyst explains it.

“If you don’t want to feed your family food contaminated with pesticides, the EWG Shopper’s Guide helps you make smart choices, whether you’re buying conventional or organic produce,” Sonya Lunder, an EWG senior analyst, says in the news release announcing the annual list.

Of course, if you want to read the EWG Shopper’s Guide, you need to contribute $15. You can view the trademarked Dirty Dozen list and EWG’s companion trademarked list, the Clean Fifteen, on the group’s website for free.

Many mainstream media outlets reported the USDA’s news back in November, as well as the pre-emptive strike by the Alliance for Food and Farming. Just as many are reporting about the Environmental Working Group’s annual unintentional tribute to the work of the 1st Demolition Section’s 13 patriots.

Seems like a draw. So why does the AFF win this round on the Beach Beat?

Even though the study of low-income people only queried 510 people in the Chicago area, making it less than statistical gospel, the AFF got it into the headlines and kept it there. It made the EWG’s list seem a bit elitist and generated negative feelings about the group’s efforts to push organics. The AFF contends such efforts resulted in poor people eating less healthy diets because they avoided produce entirely.

And, the EWG addressed the point in its news release announcing the list this year, reminding the public of the importance of produce.

“Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is essential no matter how they’re grown,” Lunder says in the release. “If you can’t buy organic, the Shopper’s Guide will steer you to conventionally grown produce that is the lowest in pesticides.”

By hitting the drum first and seeing its foe validate the rhythm by addressing it, the AFF has made major strides in its food fight with the EWG.

It’s not my style of music, and I certainly don’t think you can dance to it, but the beat will no doubt go on as the two organizations continue to promote their agendas.

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