What’s with Which?

The journal of the Consumers' Association chooses scares over science on the pesticide question.

Geoffrey Hollis

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

There is even more reason to be optimistic about life, after recent research showed that optimists live significantly longer than pessimists do.

Of course this gives pessimists something else to worry about, but those of us who see glasses half full rather than half empty have yet more cause for celebration. It is a paradox that the wealthier we become as a society, so there appear to be more and more things to worry about. Pessimism seems to have become the order of the day.

A good barometer of this rising tide of angst is that organ of the middle classes, Which, the journal of the Consumers’ Association. Once upon a time it concerned itself with comparative tests of toasters and suchlike essentials of life, but nowadays it is much more than that. Increasingly it loves covering bad news, and uncovering things that we should worry about.

The latest issue, September, kicks off with two stories headed ‘Sour times at Nectar’ (about a consumer who lost his Sainsbury’s reward card only for someone else to spend all his hard-earned points), and ‘Firm blasted for wrongly dashing credit rating’ (too complicated to explain but it will never happen to you).

Further on, the magazine devoted three pages to pesticide residues, telling us which foods contain residues, the risks they pose to human health, and how to minimise one’s exposure. Any lay person reading this supposedly well-researched piece could only conclude that they faced considerable hazards from conventionally produced food, and that they should buy organic food instead. Helpfully, Which lists foods that are ‘persistent offenders’ and says ‘it’s worth putting these at the top of your organic shopping list’. These ‘offenders’ are not marginal products, but include apples, celery, grapes, lettuce, pears and peaches.

So is Which right to raise concerns over such products? Obviously it is right to monitor foods for residues and the government produces detailed reports every year of the findings of independent researchers. These are used by Which to draw up its advice.

However, Which is selective in its use of quotes – for example, it never mentions the accompanying comments from the researchers, which year after year state that there is no significant cause for concern from residues. Which does not refer to the reassuring statement by the Food Standards Agency saying that it knows of no evidence to support claims that organic food offers nutritional or health advantages. Nor does it remind readers that the Advertising Standards Authority will not allow any puff for organic food that makes such claims.

Instead, Which dredges up research into combinations of pesticides ‘that could affect fetal brain development’. Also, ‘little is known about the cumulative effects of consuming small amounts over a lifetime or the cocktail effect of eating a variety of different pesticide residues’.

It cites these nebulous worries, but fails to point out that when residues occur they do so in microscopic amounts – a few parts per million, or even per billion – and that very large safety factors are built in to the regulatory process that controls their use. Nor does it tell us that public health has improved over the time that modern pesticides have been in use. There is good evidence that fungicides have protected food in transit and substantially reduced the incidence of illness caused by rotten food.

Why does Which pursue this scary line? It is not for lack of advice. This article is the latest in a series that invariably contain factual errors and unnecessary scares. After each one I have written to the editor, pointing out these mistakes and asking her to print corrections. Every time she has declined to do so. This demonstrates, to me at least, that she does not have the true interests of consumers at heart.

If further proof were needed, one only has to turn to another article in the same issue, headed ‘Rum Mania’. This reviews in approving terms 19 types of rum, and concludes ‘there is much for the lover of fine spirits to explore in the field of sugar cane’. Strangely, nowhere in the article does Which mention that rum contains a very high residue (at least 40 parts per hundred) of a chemical that is known to be a factor in causing cancer as well as many social problems – alcohol. This is a classic case of straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel. The people at Which seem to be so obsessed with pessimism about modern living that they have lost all sense of proportion.

Personally, I drink alcohol, in moderation, but rarely touch organic food, as it is very dangerous to the wallet. If Which were serious about helping consumers, then it might advocate my approach. Unfortunately it is more concerned to scare us than give us the advice we need.

Geoffrey Hollis was formerly in charge of Pesticide Safety at the UK Ministry of Agriculture.

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Topics Politics


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