April 12, 2018
Consumers can eat an abundance of fruits and vegetables that are largely free of pesticide residue, but they will have to shop carefully, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. The report, EWG’s 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, found that almost 70 percent of conventionally grown, not organic, produce contained pesticide residues even after washing and peeling.
The analysis, which was based on tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), found significant differences in pesticide residue among various fruits and vegetables, probably as a result of how the food is grown. At the top of the EWG’s “Dirty 12” list are strawberries, followed by spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and sweet bell peppers.
According to the EWG, more than one-third of strawberry samples contained 10 or more pesticides. More than 98 percent of the samples of strawberries, peaches, potatoes, nectarines, cherries, and apples contained the residue of at least one pesticide. Spinach had almost twice as much pesticide residue by weight compared with any other type of produce.
Report Also Lists ‘Clean’ Produce
The EWG’s “Clean 15” list of produce least likely to contain pesticides was topped by avocados, followed by sweet corn, pineapples, cabbages, onions, sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, honeydews, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower, and broccoli. Less than 1 percent of avocados and sweet corn contained pesticide residue.
The lists are created to help consumers eat plenty of produce while minimizing pesticide exposure, says lead author Sonya Lunder, MPH. “It’s a shopping guide so people can make choices appropriate for their diets, their budget, where they live and what’s in season,” she says.
Some Consumers More at Risk
Careful produce selection and washing produce is particularly important to the health of pregnant women and young children, she says.
“These are the places where choices have the most impact,” Lunder says, noting that children consume more pesticides per pound of body weight compared with adults. “We are interested in less use of the highly toxic pesticides and more regulations and consideration of kids’ vulnerability.”
Downside of a ‘Dirty’ List
But the report, which is released annually by EWG, can do more harm than good, says Teresa Thorne, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming in Watsonville, California, a nonprofit organization that represents both organic and conventional farmers. Lists like the “Dirty 12” may only serve to scare consumers away from eating fruits and vegetables, according to Thorne.
“Residues, if they are present at all, are already exceptionally low,” Thorne says. “Peer-reviewed studies have indicated that if you follow the EWG’s advice and substitute organic, you are not reducing your risk at all” because pesticide residues are already very low in conventionally grown produce.
The USDA requires farmers to follow “stringent regulations set forth to protect the safety of consumers, farm workers, and the environment,” Thorne says. The data show that 99.8 percent of residue is well below the USDA safety threshold, she adds.
“We strongly support consumer choice. But it’s also important that you know that any produce that is accessible and affordable that day is safe and wholesome,” Thorne says.
Pesticide Dangers Continue
While farmers have ceased using some of the most dangerous pesticides and must adhere to USDA safety thresholds, consumers eating recommended daily servings of produce are exposed to a wide mixture of pesticides that can add up over time, Lunder says.
Tighter regulations to reduce pesticide residue are still needed, Lunder says. She notes that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently denied a petition to ban an insecticide called chlorpyrifos, which studies show may impact the body’s central nervous system, particularly in children.
Consumers can still eat plenty of produce while minimizing their risks, Lunder notes. The EWG recommends opting for organic produce, especially if it’s a fruit or vegetable on the “Dirty 12” list, and always wash any produce thoroughly.