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CBS 48 Hours program on food safety

CBS 48 Hours program on food safety

CBS 48 HOURS program on food safety

Thu, 19 May 1994 12:14:55 -0700


From: (Carl Winter)

Last night's CBS 48 HOURS program on food safety

Colleagues -

Here is some information sent out to University of California cooperative extension faculty concerning last night's CBS 48 HOURS program on food safety

May 19. 1994

County Directors and Regional Directors

Distribution to appropriate home and farm advisors

Carl K. Winter, Ph.D., Director, FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist, Department of Food Science and Technology, UC Davis (916) 752-5448

Last Night's 48 Hours Program on Food Safety

Dear Colleagues:

Last night, CBS aired an hour-long feature on food and water safety on its weekly 48 Hours program. The feature featured reports concerning pesticides in food, microbes in the water supply, and bovine growth hormone used to increase milk production.

The majority of the program was focused upon pesticide issues and was presented, in my opinion, in a less-than-objective fashion. The emphasis seemed to be placed upon the presence or absence of pesticide residues rather than on the toxicologically-appropriate levels of residues. In one segment of the program, four Ohio families were told that 90 percent of the fruits and vegetables they purchased at the grocery store showed detectable levels of pesticide residues. The family members responded with sadness and outrage, and one mother became teary-eyed. Only later in the segment, in passing, was it mentioned that the residue levels were within established regulatory limits.

A prominent figure in the report was Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit environmental advocacy group in Washington, D.C., who was 48 Hours' primary pesticide "expert" who assisted the program's reporters in interpreting the pesticide residue results. Earlier this morning, Mr. Wiles held a press conference in Washington, D.C. to publicize a report his group released concluding that the incidence of pesticide residues in foods is far greater than previously thought and that an overhaul of food safety laws by Congress to phase out highly hazardous pesticides from the food supply is necessary. The conclusions were drawn from analysis of data obtained from the USDA's Pesticide Data Program, which used laboratory procedures that were much more sensitive than the routine procedures commonly used by regulatory agencies. Not surprisingly, a larger percentage of samples were shown to be positive for pesticide residues using the more sensitive procedures, although the typical levels of residues were unchanged. The findings of the USDA Pesticide Data Program actually have been used to demonstrate that dietary pesticide risks are lower than previously calculated since it is often conservatively assumed that when residues are not detected, they are considered to be present at a level of one-half of the limit of detection. By lowering the detection limits, the dietary contribution of residues below the detection limit is lowered significantly. Unfortunately, however, the emphasis on "presence or absence" or residues, rather than the amount of residue, serves to make the conclusions of the48 Hours broadcast and the report of the Environmental Working Group misleading, inflammatory, and not based upon appropriate science.

Another segment of the program focused upon the fungicide captan which is frequently applied to Florida's strawberry crop to prevent mold. It was pointed out that many of the Florida strawberry samples, when exported into Canada, did not meet Canada's more stringent standard of 5 parts per million (the U.S. standard is 25 parts per million). Mr. Wiles' interpretation of this discrepancy was that Canada's standards were more appropriate, that the U.S. standard was not health-based, needed to be overhauled, and that the legal limit was 100 times greater than a safe limit.

If one makes the assumption used by Wiles that consumers are continuously exposed to the maximum allowable level of captan on each food for which it can be legally applied, it is possible to reach the conclusion that the risk (in this case, cancer), exceeds a level considered to be acceptable (typically one excess cancer per million, determined using conservative assumptions; see Winter, C.K.: Lawmakers should recognize uncertainties in risk assessment, California Agricuture 48(1): 21-29, 1994). These assumptions ignore the facts that the vast majority of residues are present at small fractions of the allowable level, that pesticides are not always used even if their use is allowed, and that considerable reductions in residue levels occur from the time the food leaves the field until the time the food is consumed. With respect to captan, Winter and Archibald (Pesticides in Food: Assessing the Risks, in Winter, C.K., Seiber, J.N., and Nuckton, C.F.: Chemicals in the Human Food Chain , Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, ps. 1-50, 1990) demonstrated that the worst-case assumptions used by Wiles result in exposures that are exaggerated by factors of between 8,400 and 23,000 times. Using more realistic residue data, the risks from exposure to captan from all foods, and not just strawberries, fall well within the acceptable range.

Although it was pointed out during the program that the health benefits of consumption of fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks from pesticide exposure, consumer reaction to the program could lead to decreases in produce consumption or avoidance of specific foods such as apples, potatoes, and strawberries which were featured in the program. Health educators need to reinforce the notion that variety and moderation are the keys to a healthy diet and that foods should not be classified as simply "good" or "bad."

Please call me at (916) 752-5448 if you have any further questions or concerns.


Carl K. Winter, Ph.D.
Director, FoodSafe Program, and Extension Food Toxicologist
Department of Food Science and Technology
University of California
Davis, CA 95616
PH: (916) 752-5448
FAX: (916) 752-3975

Judith A. Bowers
Head, Public Affairs
3331 South Building
FAX: 202-690-0289

John W. Impson
National Program Leader-PAT