EWG’s report, in which the presence of pesticide residues found on conventional produce reported by EPA is analyzed, advises consumers to avoid 12 produce items that were “commonly contaminated with highly toxic organophosphate insecticides.” The produce items are also ranked in order of the highest concentrations of the chemicals found, and they are as follows: apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries, potatoes, green beans and kale. These items make up EWGs’ self-proclaimed 2012 “Dirty Dozen” list.
The study also names a “Clean 15,” which is comprised of produce items with the lowest reported concentrations of insecticide residues found. They are onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, cabbage, sweet peas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, kiwi, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, watermelon and mushrooms.
In a recent interview, CropLife America (CLA) President Jay Vroom cited several areas where the study could be construed as misleading, among them:
If you’re concerned about exposure to pesticide residues, simply switch to organic produce.
There are two concerns with this line of thinking, chiefly among them that switching to organic will lessen a consumer’s chance of coming into contact with pesticide residues. “Organic produce oftentimes has pesticide residues, some of the same compounds at trace levels that have been indicated on conventional produce, as well as organic-approved pesticide residues that many organic growers use to produce those crops,” says Vroom. “So, to suggest that organic produce is completely pesticide-free, which is the inference being made by members of the media that are picking this story up, is inherently false.”
Also, according to Vroom, the government has yet to institute a program to test for pesticide residues on organic produce of the scale of the testing of conventional. “To my knowledge, the government has not done any exhaustive studies on pesticide residues on organic produce that would parallel the robustness of the pesticide data and surveillance program that the USDA has done now for the past 20-plus years,” he says. “There are spot checks over time though that shows that there are residues on organic produce, certainly of the pesticides that are certified for use by organic farmers.”
Another issue with telling folks to consume strictly organic produce is the sheer cost of the goods and the lack of access many have to organically grown foods.
“Clearly, there are some economic pressures that, should more people substantially increase demand for organic produce, it would have the effect of increasing prices as well,” says Vroom. “So in the short-term it could have additional negative consequences, but at the end of the day we’ve never seen any massive shift of produce consumption driven by the results of this study.”
“The bottom line is that we’re all in this together and we don’t see any real value in portraying agriculture as organic vs. conventional,” he adds. “Both systems have their role in responding to consumer demands and their contributions, but to advocate one over the other we don’t feel gains anyone any advantage, and certainly it doesn’t serve the consumer in any way.”
These are dangerous levels of pesticides that can directly and negatively affect our health.
To the contrary, Vroom and CLA believe otherwise: “Consuming the amounts of produce required to ingest anything close to a toxic amount of pesticides is basically impossible,” he says. “Also, if the level of pesticide residue is enough to cause any real damage to one’s health, it would probably indicate the produce as a whole is toxic.
“We’re talking about residue levels in the margins of, in most cases, the limits of science’s ability to even detect it,” Vroom adds. “It’s a minuscule amount, and we don’t deny that there is some pesticide exposure, but it is, in the vast majority of instances, not representative of any possible health concerns from consuming a normal amount of fruits and vegetables.”
The study itself is flawed.
According to the study method, the fruits and vegetables were washed as they normally would be by your average consumer. However, the problem with that, according to Vroom, is that some consumers are more vigilant than others when cleaning produce, so results could vary widely depending upon how thoroughly researchers washed the items.
“USDA follows a fairly standardized approach with regard to cold and hot water washing the produce before they analyze the samples,” says Vroom. “And it’s pretty clear to me that they don’t overdo the washing, so it probably does represent the least-careful consumer with regard to washing fruits and vegetables in their own kitchen. I would guess most of us probably put a little more rigor into that process than USDA would for this study.
“Now, it’s a fair point and it has to be said that we do believe the USDA is fair and consistent in their methods and all of that,” he adds. “But, is it possible that more residues could have been removed by more vigorous washing? Certainly.”