Debunking EWG's Dirty Dozen

Telling Your Story

The real story behind exposure to pesticides on food

Published on: May 16, 2013

Have you heard of the Environmental Working Group and their Dirty Dozen list?  Here you can link to the list yourself.  It's interesting that the beginning paragraph notes to, "Eat fruits and vegetables!" and, "the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure."  The website goes on to say that, "You can lower your pesticide intake by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and choosing the least contaminated produce." 

Who besides EWG is looking at this, other than the regulatory agencies that set our food standards?  Dr. Carl Winter, Associate Director of the FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist at the University of California, Davis, researches the detection of pesticides and naturally-occurring toxins in foods.  You can read an interview about Dr. Winter's research on Best Food Facts.  

In summary, he found that, "in the vast majority of cases…our typical exposure to pesticides from those foods was generally a million times lower than doses that haven't even caused affects in animals.  In short, even for the 'most contaminated' produce on their list, the level of pesticide exposure is incredibly low."

I personally had the opportunity to hear Dr. Winter explain his research last year.  There were several issues that struck me.

* First, it's the dose that makes the poison.  In other words, how much chemical is present rather than if the chemical is present.  Lots of things are toxic if enough is consumed; 

* Second, Dr. Winter explained the hoops that must be gone through to get pesticides approved in this country.  It really is quite an extensive process that most people don't think about; 

* Third, how these types of lists can be published (sensationalized?), and how they are moving people's buying decisions; 

* Fourth, how the items on this list may have small traces of pesticide, but significantly below what is allowable by our regulatory agencies;

* Fifth, the pesticide residue calculator -- try it.  For example, the average woman could consume over 500 apples in one day without any effect, even if the apples have pesticide residue recorded by USDA.

This Washington Times article shares the various regulatory agencies' statements on the EWG's findings.  One of the most interesting findings was from the Agriculture Department, where it's noted, "that residues at levels above the Environmental Protection Agency tolerance standards occurred in just 0.27 percent of the samples.  That means that 99.73 percent of the samples met the agency's very stringent standards." 

The Mississippi Fruit Extension blog brings up some good points about the categories on the EWG list.  For example, "Number one on the list is Apples.  Does this mean domestically grown apples?  Imported?  Both?  Locally grown?  Are there variety differences?  Different varieties have different tolerances to certain pests which could in turn influence the amount of pesticides applied." 

These are all good points that as the average consumer probably won't think through.  But, now you have the facts.

No wonder there are so many questions surrounding food and production practices.