Dirty Dozen or Dirty Tactics?

By Jin Ju Wilder

“If you’re eating non-organic celery today, you may be ingesting 67 pesticides with it, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group.” 

Yikes! That sounds horrible. This was the opening for a CNN article that was published June 1, 2010. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit focused on public health, publishes an annual list of fruits and vegetables, frequently referred to as the “Dirty Dozen,” suspected of carrying a high number of pesticide residues. In 2011, the No. 1 Dirty Dozen item changed from celery to the all-American apple. This prompted the Huffington Post to say in a June 13, 2011 article, “Could an apple a day really keep the doctor away? Maybe — but it may also be coated in pesticides.”

Apple Sprayer

Sprayer in an organic apple orchard

Wow. At a time when the government is promoting good health by making half of your plate fruits and veggies, is eating non-organic produce a good idea when the media is telling us fruits and veggies are doused in pesticides? Well, EWG’s solution is to make sure you buy organic produce to reduce the amount of pesticides you ingest.

There are a few problems with EWG’s Dirty Dozen list and the proposed solution. First, EWG promotes the perception that organic fruits and vegetables are grown without pesticides. This simply isn’t true.

Contrary to what most people believe, “organic” does not mean “pesticide-free” or “chemical-free”, because organic farmers are allowed to use a wide variety of chemical sprays and powders on their crops. Organic farmers, however, can only use pesticides derived from natural sources, not synthetically manufactured ones.

Also, these pesticides must be applied using equipment that has not been used to apply any synthetic materials for the past three years, and the land being planted cannot have been treated with synthetic materials for that period either.

Most organic and conventional farmers use methods like insect traps, careful crop selection (using disease-resistant varieties), predator insects, and beneficial microorganisms to control pests, but they also still use pesticides because they are just much more effective.

You may think that “natural” pesticides pose less of a risk if ingested, but when the studies were conducted on the naturally derived pesticides; the results showed that half of the natural chemicals studied were as carcinogenic as the synthetically derived chemicals. Before the studies were conducted, it was a case where everyone made the assumption that “natural” chemicals were better and safer than synthetic materials. We thought “natural” was harmless and organic was better; we were wrong.

The EWG report is also misleading in that the Dirty Dozen list is based on exposure data only and not on the toxicity of the pesticides present. The presence of any pesticides may seem scary; however, it doesn’t automatically mean that they are a potential threat to your health.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) current testing requirements for pesticides used on food are more extensive than for chemicals used in any other category. The EPA’s testing is targeted specifically to assess the potential risks to fetuses, infants and children.

Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conduct sampling and monitoring programs to ensure that the U.S. food supply is safe. These federal agencies do advise washing fresh fruits and vegetables with running water to reduce or eliminate pesticides, if any are even present.

There are also stringent standards governing the application of pesticides in the field. In California, for example, before farmers can apply most pesticides, they must comply with more than 70 laws and regulations governing their use. This system ensures that pesticides are applied only when necessary and in a safe manner.

Fortunately, the scientific community is starting to take a closer look at EWG’s claims and, in applying scientific methodology, have exposed the completely unscientific nature of this list.

In a recent paper published in the open, peer-reviewed Journal of Toxicology, Carl K. Winter and Josh M. Katz of UC Davis say, “The methodology used to create the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list does not appear to follow any established scientific procedures.” It concluded that “findings conclusively demonstrate that consumer exposures to the ten most frequently detected pesticides on EWG’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ commodity list are at negligible levels and that the EWG methodology is insufficient to allow any meaningful rankings among commodities.”

Despite these flaws in the EWG argument, the media loves the drama of publicizing The Dirty Dozen List and EWG’s website shows testimony from celebrities like Dr. Oz and Dr. Weil saying that they use the list to determine what produce they choose to eat.

And EWG is going to continue publishing this list on an annual basis because of the publicity it generates and the subsequent donations that come pouring in to support their organization.

When you go to the EWG site to review The Dirty Dozen list, you are asked to donate: “It’s important to us to continue providing you with cutting-edge research and easy-to-use consumer guides like this. But we need your help to do it. Give just $10 today and we will send you our exclusive EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce bag tag featuring our Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists to hook onto your reusable shopping bag free!”  Thus, the Dirty Dozen list is exposed as a fundraising gimmick that has worked very well for EWG since 1995.

It turns out that your mom’s advice to eat your veggies is still good.

Other folks, ranging from Our First Lady, health officials from every major government agency, health care groups and health education organizations all agree with your mother. They also say that we need to eat more fruits and vegetables to live a healthier life. Don’t let “lists” that aren’t even based on science keep you from eating all the varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables that are available to you.

Whether conventional or organic, wash your fruits and veggies with running water and enjoy them all through the day, every day.