The Environmental Working Group recently released its 2012 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. It's the eighth edition of the guide, and there's always some sort of controversy surrounding it.
This year was no different for the lists that highlight the worst offenders with its new Dirty Dozen Plus and the cleanest conventional produce with the Clean Fifteen.
The Alliance for Food and Farming has called for EWG to stop publishing the its Dirty Dozen list, saying the information is negative and misleading and that it might be scaring people away from consuming a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.
"What makes this worse is that there is a large body of scientific work that clearly shows this group's list is not scientifically verifiable or valid," says Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming.
The list is based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
EWG's main message is this: Eat organic versions of those from the Dirty Dozen and buy conventional from those on the Clean Fifteen.
In general, produce that has a thick rind or outer layer that is removed before consumption, such as sweet corn, onions or canteloupe, are considered the lowest in pesticides.
Does anyone really want to consume pesticides, no matter how small the amount might be? Of course not.
"The folks who have come to rely on EWG' Shopper's Guide are committed to eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, but would like to also reduce their pesticide intake," said EWG spokesman Alex Formuzis.
Formuzis said it's about giving people information to make an informed choice.
"Even when the AFF tries to get its survey participants to pick pesticides as the top safety concern, pesticides comes in third – losing out to price of the product," Formuzis said. "And then the AFF's own research goes on to claim that ‘cost, availability and preferences are much more significant factors than pesticides when it comes to purchasing fruits and vegetables'.
"That's correct. People who choose to eat a Big Mac and a Snickers Bar over apples and spinach aren't making that choice because they're all of the sudden concerned about pesticides in their diets," Formuzis said.
The shopper's guide ranks pesticide contamination for 45 popular fruits and vegetables based on an analysis of more than 60,700 samples taken from 2000 to 2010 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Nearly all the studies on which the guide is based tested produce after it has been washed or peeled.
So, over the 11-year period, that's an average of only 5,518 samples a year. That's not much testing when you consider the millions of tons of fruits and vegetables produced here as well as imports.
The information serves as a general guide, in that it doesn't tell a shopper anything about the actual produce he or she is purchasing.
But the USDA appears to have stepped up the testing. In 2010 it tested the following for pesticides residues: 10,974 samples of fresh and processed fruit and vegetables, including 574 of baby food, 299 of oats, 371 of eggs, 384 of catfish, 250 of groundwater and 567 of treated and untreated drinking water.
The USDA reports that in 2010, excluding water and catfish, residues exceeding the maximum allowable amount set by the Environmental Protection Agency were detected in a quarter of one percent of the samples. However, 4.6 percent of the samples had residues where there is no established tolerance level.
What is the USDA's conclusion? Keep on eating fruits and vegetables. In fact, the agency says, fill half your plate with them.
Formuzis offers this insight:
"Just because EPA considers the levels of pesticides found on our produce to be legal doesn't mean it's safe. And, what are the health risks from eating a mix of different pesticides like you find on those in the Dirty Dozen? No one really knows because no one, including the AFF, has done any research on it. Hard to imagine eating two or three probable carcinogens and four pesticides that have shown to be toxic to the nervous system would be good for people, particularly very young children," he said.
Take it or leave it. Believe it or not. Consumers can make their own choices.
Both EWG and Pesticide Action Network have website and free iPhone apps that consumers can use while shopping.
Pesticide Action Network's is called "What's on my Food?" and EWG's is "Dirty Dozen."