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Is The 'Dirty Dozen' Food List Really So Dirty After All?

It’s that time of year again, when the nonprofit advocacy organization Environmental Working Group publishes its annual list of the 12 fruits and vegetables most contaminated by pesticide residue. They’ve been publishing the Dirty Dozen (which hasn’t always gone by that name) since 1995, and it inevitably garners major media attention. And it’s thought to influence the purchasing decisions of millions of Americans.

I’m one of them.

Just in case the mere list itself doesn’t de facto freak you out, the EWG headlines its strawberry page: “Pesticides + Poison Gases = Cheap, Year-Round Strawberries.” They continue: “Strawberry growers use jaw-dropping volumes of poisonous gases to sterilize their fields before planting, killing every pest, weed and other living thing in the soil.”

For three years now, I’ve been buying organic strawberries, because strawberries have been the Dirty Dozen’s top offender. Cherries also made it into the top 12 this year, along with peaches, pears, grapes and tomatoes.

Of course, although organic is generally thought to have lower amounts of pesticide residue, it is far from perfect: Organic farmers often use non-chemical methods of pest control, but they also resort to naturally derived pesticides, which can be as toxic as synthetic ones. In addition, synthetic pesticides from nearby conventional crops can drift onto organic produce.

Organic is expensive, and it’s not always available. Is regular produce really that bad? Does a conventional strawberry field turn into some kind of uber-sprayed, desiccated graveyard producing nothing but pesticide-poisoned fruit? The EWG’s language seemed so hyperbolic I began to wonder just how dirty the Dirty Dozen really is.

So I did some research. And it turns out conventional produce is actually pretty darn clean.

Scientists see fault in the way the EWG analyzes the data that serves as the backbone of the Dirty Dozen.

Numerous scientists say that the way the EWG analyzes data is flawed.

“The pesticide residues are such a tiny amount of risk compared to the huge amount of benefit we would all get if we ate the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables,” says geneticist Anastasia Bodnar, policy director of Biology Fortified Inc., a nonprofit that fosters conversation about issues in food and agriculture.

Bodnar first demystified the Dirty Dozen in detail back in 2010. Plant pathologist Steve Savage agrees with her. Savage has analyzed the raw data numerous times, most recently in April. “The data actually says you should have great confidence in your food,” he concludes.

Here’s the skinny: The data itself comes straight from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which every year tests thousands of produce samples for pesticide residues as part of its Pesticide Data Program (PDP). Those data are there for anybody to analyze. The information is transparent, but it’s not very easy to parse, Savage says.

You’ll have to pore over about 2 million rows of information in an Excel spreadsheet. Only about 1.45 percent of those will note detectable residues. And even among those, he says, “99.85 percent of the residues that are detected are below the already conservative ‘tolerances’ that are set by the EPA.” In fact, a 2011 study in The Journal of Toxicology found that levels of pesticides in the Dirty Dozen all fell below the EPA limit ― sometimes 1,000- or even an astounding 30,000-fold under the limit.

The problem is that EWG doesn’t differentiate between infinitesimal, safe and excessive. It counts every residue. “We do that,” says EWG’s senior science adviser, Olga Naidenko, “because the presence of multiple pesticides, even at levels below the EPA tolerance, may have additive effects.”

That’s a fair point, and one that has been explored and debated in many studies. But, Bodnar says, the science on additive effects is still murky, and the EWG doesn’t make that distinction clear. Instead, it veers “into sensationalist territory,” she says.

The Dirty Dozen ends up scaring people away from eating fruits and vegetables.

That’s unfortunate, because we actually need groups like EWG. “They have the ability to provide a very important benefit to society,” Bodnar says. “Government spending on science has decreased over the years, leaving most toxicity research to the companies that make the products being tested.”

In one of its reports, for instance, EWG notes that the Environmental Protection Agency planned to ban one pesticide, chlorpyrifos, but when Scott Pruitt took office as administrator of the EPA in 2017, he canceled the ban, and the EPA pushed its final safety assessment to 2022. That’s information that I, a consumer of both conventional and organic produce, find valuable.

EWG does let us know that eating fresh produce outweighs any risk from pesticide residues. It also offers a Clean Fifteen list of conventional produce that includes avocados, pineapples and asparagus. But all that seems buried under the glaring headlights of its scary talk about chemical warfare agents, cancer, nerve gases and more.

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure if anyone gets to the message to eat more produce, period,” Bodnar says, “considering that media coverage of the Shopper’s Guide rarely mentions it, instead focusing on the scary ‘facts.’” Individuals who can’t afford organic may simply eat less produce.

No matter what, says University of California, Davis, food toxicologist Carl Winter, “consumers should be encouraged to eat fruits, vegetables and grains and should not fear the low levels of pesticide residues found in such foods.”

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily can significantly reduce the risk of mortality. And yet, right now, only 1 in 10 Americans is eating the recommended amount. So the takeaway should be: Eat more fruits and veggies. They’re healthy. Period.

Safe Fruits and Veggies is a helpful site that encourages consumption of both conventional and organic produce, offers a pesticide calculator and publishes up-to-date news and information on the health benefits of produce.

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