Fear-based safety messages on vegetable labels may discourage low-income shoppers

Instant message. “Fear-based safety messages may be hurting the poorest consumers,” a headline in Food Safety News read this week. Are they really? A new study out of the Illinois Institute of Technology examines the way low income shoppers buy fruits and vegetables. Its findings are largely consistent with what most of us already assume about decision making in the produce aisle: Price is a concern when it comes to purchasing fruits and vegetables, regardless of whether they’re organically or conventionally grown. But the study also adds a new assertion to the conversation. Messaging about pesticides can influence purchasing patterns with both organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, dissuading people from buying any produce at all. At first glance, it makes sense—when confronted with a $6 organic head of lettuce making loud proclamations about the presence of pesticides on its neighboring $2 head of lettuce, sometimes the most frictionless decision is to walk away.

The study was funded by various donors, including a gift from the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), which is backed by several produce interest groupsSourcewatch points to the AFF as a front group that consistently declares the “safety of numerous pesticides.” This is of note because the organization issues a press release in response to the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” list of foods with the most pesticide residue every year, claiming that the list is inaccurate and that there’s credible evidence to the contrary.

The AFF’s relationship with the dirty dozen and the study itself would be neither here nor there, except for one thing: When the researchers asked participants to rate their reactions to various written statements in the produce aisle, one of the test messages explicitly called out the dirty dozen. That was the message that caused 15 percent of participants (the highest of any of the messages) to throw in the towel, saying they were less likely to buy any fruits or vegetables at all.

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.