When I rank life's big worries, pesticide residue on the family's fruits and vegetables is way down my list.
I say this after having read a barrage of information on pesticides in the diets of infants and children. I read the news accounts of what the National Academy of Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration had to say recently about the subject. And I plowed through the subsequent flow of position papers issued by food industry and environmental action groups.
Try as I might, I couldn't get outraged about the pesticide situation. As a matter of fact, the more I read, the calmer I became.
That is because, in the latest commotion over pesticides on fruits and vegetables, there was no "meat."
Was someone offering solid evidence that pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables had caused a problem in American health? No.
Was anyone saying we should stop eating fruits and vegetables? No.
When the press releases stopped flying and the TV lights went off, the gist of what was being said was that there was going to be a change in testing procedures. The methods scientists use to check the health effects of eating produce with pesticide residue will be improved.
The changes are supposed to be a more accurate reflection of the way kids eat. Kids often eat large quantities of a small number of foods. And tests will now take into account that a small, growing body may react differently to pesticide residue than a large, adult body.
While these changes sounded like good ideas, they did not strike me as earth-shaking revelations. Instead, they sounded like the stuff inter-office memos are made of. Nonetheless, the mention of pesticides seems to make most Americans fidget.
For example, a 1992 poll by the Food Marketing Institute, a food industry trade group, found that 76 percent of the respondents thought pesticides in food were a "serious hazard."
What I find interesting is that there appears to be little scientific basis for the feeling that pesticides in the American food supply are a serious problem. On the contrary, most of the data point in the other direction. A 1991 Food and Drug Administration inspection of close to 19,000 food samples, for example, found that 98 percent of the tested food had either no pesticide residues or had levels below the legal allowed limit.
However, critics contend that these government inspections are too few and legal limits are too low, especially for kids. So scientists are taking a fresh look at the legal limits or tolerances for pesticides. (One of the best summaries of the pesticide issue I came across was Fact Sheet 652, a free publication from Maryland's Cooperative Extension Service.)
Pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables are, I think, one of life's lower risks. The precise size of that risk is being debated among the experts. That, I gather, is one of the reasons for the call for new types of testing. However, one member of the National Academy of Sciences panel said that, figuring all the factors, like the danger of a traffic accident, driving a kid across town to buy organic produce might be riskier to the kid than feeding him supermarket produce.
As for how this national debate plays in one family's kitchen, I can report that, after I had sifted through the latest pesticide information, the fruit-and-vegetable pattern at our house remained unchanged.
I continue to buy local produce in season, often at farmers' markets. Since this market produce is fresh and close to its native fields, it typically has little or no pesticide residue on it. That is what the experts say. They forget to say it tastes better.
I continue to wash my produce in cold water, which, I read, often removes some pesticide residue.
But I refuse to peel. Peeling off the skin of fruits and vegetables is said to reduce the chance of ingesting pesticide residue. But it is not fail-safe. Some pesticides penetrate the skin of the produce, so skinning would have little effect. Moreover, the skin of fruits and vegetables is often loaded with vitamins and minerals. And it tastes wonderful.
So I wash, but I don't peel. I feed these fruits and vegetables to my kids. And I take my chances. A few years from now, when data using the new testing procedures emerge, I will be able to see exactly what those chances are. But right now, I am not worried.