Jun 1 2002

Organics and Pesticides: Isn’t It Ironic

A study released by Consumers Union in May found that nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables had traces of pesticides, while less than a quarter (23 percent) of organic produce had such residues. When organic food did have detectable levels of pesticides, the amounts were generally lower than in conventional produce, and organics were less likely to be contaminated with multiple chemicals (Food Additives and Contaminants, Vol. 19 No. 5).

Consumers Union released this information, appropriately enough, in a press release headlined “Organic Foods Really Do Have Less Pesticides” (5/8/02). But that’s not the story most news consumers saw.

“One-Quarter of Organic Produce Contains Pesticides, Study Finds,” was how Associated Press spun the story (5/7/02); UPI‘s story (5/8/02) was headlined, “DDT Residue Found in Organic Food.” Newspapers across the country, many of them picking up AP‘s story, generally had a similar take: “Organic Food Doesn’t Guarantee Chem-Free,” was USA Today‘s line (5/9/02), while readers of the Miami Herald saw “Organic Produce Has Traces of Pesticides, Study Finds.”

“Study Finds Pesticides in Products Labeled Organic,” reported the Topeka Capital Journal (5/8/02), suggesting that the organic label should be put into question; “Organic Produce Often Contains Pesticides, Says Study,” said the Bismarck [N.D.] Tribune, (5/8/02), although the actual point of the study is that such contamination is relatively infrequent.

FAIR has often complained that too much of journalism consists of reprinting press releases virtually verbatim. But in this case, journalists took the time to take the central finding of a study and stand it on its head. If pesticide residue in food is a story worth covering, media could have alerted readers that it is present in a large majority of the produce most commonly eaten. And for readers who are concerned about that, they could have pointed out that buying organic was a simple way to dramatically reduce your chances of consuming such chemicals.

Instead, these outlets opted for pointing out that organic produce isn’t totally pure. Score: irony 1, health 0.