NEW YORK -- Retailers downplayed the effect a study on pesticide residue and produce will have on business, though they said they remain ready to respond to inquiries should shoppers express any concerns over the subject.
Produce executives made the comments to SN following an article in the March edition of Consumer Reports that states that high levels of pesticide residue on some fruits and vegetables put young children at risk.
"It was a little bit surprising," said Bruce Peterson, vice president of perishables for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, in response to the article. "I don't know if it's going to have any effect necessarily. The information was contrary to what we believe is accurate about that subject."
So far, Peterson said, there have been no reports from managers in Wal-Mart stores with produce departments that would require a large-scale response.
"Usually, if consumers are going to react, they're going to react right away," he said. "It's been very quiet from our perspective. We haven't had a lot of calls about it."
Also taking a stand-by approach is Bill Misner, director of produce for Blue Goose Supermarkets, St. Charles, Ill.
"I am waiting to see what the repercussion is and then, if I am forced to do something, I will react," said Misner. "As it stands, being so early on, no, I haven't done anything yet."
Misner said that the store's customer base, which he describes as "very educated," leads him to believe that customers will not hastily react to the study.
"I have really not heard much at all yet," he said. "[Consumers] are buying more [produce] right now than they did a month ago at this time."
However, some retailers are looking at the report as an opportunity to better educate consumers about the products they carry. For example, Chris Ford, associate produce buyer for Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets, told SN that he is surprised the magazine waited so long to publish such findings.
"Knowing the effects the chemicals have had on the workers themselves over the years, it doesn't surprise me that kids are so susceptible to the amount of stuff that's sprayed on the produce," said Ford.
Ford said that Wild Oats very rarely carries conventional greens due to the possibility of high pesticide residue levels. Indeed, organic produce comprises 70% to 80% of the department's total mix.
"Certain fruits and vegetables are more susceptible to soaking up pesticides," he said. "Anything that is leafy is going to absorb it from either the water supply or direct spraying."
To help customers differentiate between organic and conventional produce, Ford said, Wild Oats provides signs indicating the various categories, as well as explaining what each one means. He also said the staff is very knowledgeable about the components of each growing process.
"I think a lot of people really don't know where their food comes from," said Ford. "They don't think about the process of growing from seed, or the fertilizers that are applied to it.
Ford also pointed to the portion of the Consumer Reports study that indicated U.S.-grown produce contained more toxic pesticides than imported produce. He said that most consumers shun produce that is not U.S. grown but, in reality, the inspection process is a lot stricter.
"People have this stigma about Southern Hemisphere fruit, like Chilean [produce]," he explained. "That stuff, in my mind, like it says in the article, is cleaner than a lot of the stuff that is grown in this country. The chemicals they use are not as many."
According to Cathy Means, vice president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, consumers will not be drawn in by the study's hype.
"I don't think it will have impact on sales at all," said Means. "I think that consumers are much smarter than they were 10 years ago. I think the 5 a Day message that fruits and vegetables are good for you will override any of this kind of publicity."
Means said that the study buried the point that the benefits from eating fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks. She also said their proximity index was "bogus" and that, since they were using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they should have pointed out the fact that pesticide residue on fresh produce is decreasing with each year.
"It basically made all the points the industry continues to make, but made in such a way that it scares consumers," said Means. "The idea that fruits and vegetables have residues that are too high is not correct. They admit that residues are within legal limits."
The article in question, titled "How Safe Is Your Produce?," was compiled by Consumer Reports' parent organization, Consumers Union, Yonkers, N.Y. The group independently analyzed the USDA's data on pesticide residue levels, which included 27,000 samples of produce taken by government researchers between 1994 and 1997.
The Consumers Union research concluded that even a single daily serving of some produce varieties is harmful to young children, including apples, grapes, green beans, peaches, pears, spinach and winter squash. In addition, CU found that domestic produce contained higher toxic levels than imported produce, based on its interpretation of the USDA data.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has also released a brochure, titled "Pesticides and Food: What You and Your Family Need to Know." The four-panel brochure was shipped to retailers last month, according to an EPA spokesman (see story, Page 59).