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Dr. Oz Rebuttal

False information on fresh and fresh-cut produce continues to be spread on mainstream media outlets, and when a daytime television program hosted by a purported doctor tells people that fresh fruits and vegetables aren't safe, it upsets growers.

In late September, the Dr. Oz Show had a segment on the safety of foods, and in it show host Dr. Oz stated that produce items have high pesticide residues, which could lead to asthma-like systems, dilated eyes and a racing heart. Not only was Dr. Oz's statement scientifically wrong, it also mischaracterized growers and distributors of healthful products, according to industry members and their associations.

A coalition of industry associations ¬- the Alliance for Food and Farming, Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association and Western Growers Association - took the show to task in an open letter for putting fear into consumers while obesity and diseases related to obesity continue to rise. But processor/distributor Dole Fresh Vegetable is fighting back by promoting its growers as responsible members of the agricultural community.

David Willoughby is one of those Dole growers. His family has farmed in central California for 150 years, and he farms some of the same ground with his brother and their kids. He grows exclusively for Dole, including leafy green vegetables for the company's fresh-cut bagged salads. In fact, the farm was one of the original suppliers for Dole, and has been growing produce for the company for 60 years.

Willoughby said he felt that the Dr. Oz story didn't accurately tell the story of agriculture, and he thinks the industry can do a better job of getting the message out.

"They made it sound like every possible pesticide product used on crops is used on every crop," he said. "They make it sound like we just go out and spray for fun."

But Willoughby said most farmers, like him, practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which reduces the amount of pesticides needed and saves farmers money. He's been using IPM for years, and he has two pest control providers that don't push increased use of pesticide sprays. Growers also are regulated on the amounts of pesticide residue that is allowed on fresh produce, and those standards were set using scientific methods. That helps maintain the safety of fresh and fresh-cut produce in the United States, and he said the regulations are even stricter than other countries that ship to the United States.

"The three federal government agencies that regulate the use of pesticides (EPA, USDA and FDA) are clear that 98 percent of the produce tested have either no detectable residues or the residues found were well below the legal levels set by the government. And, our government's standards governing the use of pesticides are the most stringent in the world - yes, even more stringent than the European system," the industry associations' letter to Dr. Oz stated.

Willoughby also had a problem with Dr. Oz's identification of pesticides. The show didn't differentiate the different classes or residue limits, but just made it sound like every pesticide was on every product in large quantities, which is nowhere near the truth, he said. In order for the show to be balanced, someone from within the agriculture industry should have been present to let viewers know what's really being done, and not what Dr. Oz or show writers think is happening in the fields, Willoughby said.

Additional food safety advancements have recently made produce even safer. Since the introduction of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) following the 2006 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in spinach, Willoughby now conducts pre-planting inspections for animal intrusions or waste, and inspections pre-harvest ensure plant material isn't harvested where animals have entered. He also conducts in-field testing during the growing season, and every acre is cultured before it's harvested.

Even the Willoughby's harvester was designed with food safety in mind. It built almost completely out of stainless steel and designed to reduce areas where plant material could build up. Once the product is harvested, it goes through a rinse cycle on the harvester using sanitized water. It's then shipped to the processing facility where it's triple-washed and ready to eat.

"Produce today is absolutely safer now than it's ever been," Willoughby said.

The harvester reduces the number of hands that touch the produce, which in turn reduces opportunities for contamination. But workers are always part of the equation, so Willoughby said he conducts harvest training several times a year on food safety, and regular training for managers and workers on how to spot sick coworkers.

Farms in California have increased the number of portable bathroom facilities and handwashing stations thanks to LGMA metrics, Willoughby said. His facilities also include sanitizing gel, bootwashing stations and racks to hang coats on outside the bathrooms to help ensure that nothing is carried back into the field. The employees are even issued new gloves every day so that contamination doesn't occur from dirty gloves.

Despite safer produce today, Willoughby said some consumers still think fruits and vegetables can be dangerous. He said suppliers and industry associations could do a better job at communicating success stories. The burden to communicate should really fall on those two groups because they carry the "big sticks" ¬- money, trained staff, media contacts - that individual farmers don't have. LGMA, for example, has done a lot of good in California and other states, and Willoughby said it could be promoted more. Increased communication about the safety of fresh produce will help to combat some of the negative perceptions and will inform consumers so that their not misled by negative publicity like the segment presented on the Dr. Oz program.


Originally posted Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010

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