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Flawed Oranges With Fewer Pesticides Favored, Survey Finds

Times Staff Writer

Given a choice between a pretty orange and a blemished orange grown with fewer pesticides, shoppers seem to prefer the latter, according to a survey issued Tuesday by a private California consumer group.

Release of the California Public Interest Research Group survey, which was immediately challenged by a citrus growers’ trade organization, is the latest episode in the debate over the risks and benefits of pesticide practices.

Growers and packers say they use only enough pesticides to ensure adequate supplies of appetizing produce at prices consumers can afford, and that the pesticides either leave no residue or insignificant residue by the time they are bought.

Consumer advocates, labor unions and environmentalists contend that current pesticide practices pollute the environment, endanger farm workers and leave a residue on food that is unhealthy for consumers.

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The California Public Interest Research Group, known as CalPIRG, said it conducted its survey of consumer attitudes to challenge industry arguments that it applies some pesticides for cosmetic purposes because shoppers refuse to buy blemished fruit and vegetables.

In the survey, 229 supermarket customers--about 79% of them in the greater Los Angeles area and the rest in the San Francisco Bay Area--were shown three photographs of oranges. One is perfect in appearance, while the other two show differing degrees of blemishing caused by insects.

At first, only about 6% of those surveyed said they would buy the blemished fruit. But after being told that the blemished oranges had received half the amount of pesticides as the perfect-looking orange, about 60% expressed a willingness to buy the imperfect fruit.

CalPIRG representatives said the survey results can be applied to all fresh fruits and vegetables. They said they focused on oranges because oranges are a common and popular fruit that they contend receives between 60% and 80% of its pesticides strictly for cosmetic purposes.

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“These findings reveal that consumers care more about reduced exposure to pesticides than (the) appearance of their produce,” the report stated. “The food industry defends current levels of pesticide use as absolutely necessary to grow food economically. Yet, additional pesticide use to achieve strict cosmetic standards is clearly not warranted.”

Survey Criticized

Joel Nelson, president of the California Citrus Mutual growers’ association in Visalia, criticized the survey and its underlying assumptions as “so full of holes it makes Swiss cheese look solid.”

He dismissed as “blatantly untrue” CalPIRG’s assertion that “60% to 80% of pesticides applied to oranges is for prevention of cosmetic scarring.” He added that one of the pesticides cited by the consumer group, Orthene, is not even used on oranges, although he acknowledged that it was tested three years ago as an insecticide.

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In addition, he said thrips--small, winged, juice-sucking insects that blemished the oranges used for the survey--are a legitimate pesticide target because they are suspected of reducing yield. He added that thrips are sprayed early in the year, leaving time for the pesticide to wash off and break down.

He added that the industry’s problem in selling slightly scarred “choice” grade oranges--at prices below the perfect-looking “fancy” grade--indicates that consumer preferences are more complicated than was assumed by the CalPIRG survey.

“Consumers may say one thing,” he said, “but they do something else when it comes down to actually buying.”

Hesitant About Meaning

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Lori Lynch, a research associate at UC Davis Center for Consumer Research who helped design and analyze the survey, also was hesitant to extrapolate the survey’s findings to the general population. She did, however, say, “it seemed like it was a pretty representative sample.”

Uncertainty about what people say they would do and what they actually will do also was addressed in a 1986 report in which the RAND Corp. of Santa Monica tried to estimate for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency how much people would be willing to pay to reduce some food risks, such as pesticide residue.

The analysis concluded that “the extremely uncertain estimates of the risk avoided by choosing (pesticide-free) organically grown food limits our ability to reliably estimate consumer willingness to pay for actual risk reduction.”

That conclusion acknowledged the division between scientists who think that health risks posed by trace pesticide residue are too small to worry about and scientists who think that the cumulative effects of eating residues over the course of a lifetime pose significant dangers of cancer and other disorders.

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Ann Wilcox of CalPIRG said her organization’s survey indicates that safety, not price, is what will make consumers choose to buy oranges and other produce that is slightly blemished, but equally nutritious and tasty.


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