- Raisins are the No. 1 most pesticide-contaminated produce item with 99% of non-organic raisins testing positive for at least two chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group’s 2020 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. This is the first year the group tested produce that is not fresh.
- In the fresh produce category, strawberries, spinach and kale again took the top three spots on the “Dirty Dozen” list for exposure to the greatest number of pesticides. The report found 90% of samples tested positive for two or more pesticide residues. The full list, in order, includes: Strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes.
- The cleanest items are avocados, sweet corn and pineapples. In the top 15 cleanest spots, 70% of produce samples had no pesticide residues, according to the EWG’s analysis of data from the USDA.
This year’s “Dirty Dozen” list is similar to 2019. Similarly, the “Clean Fifteen” rankings were nearly identical. The guide reviewed 47 fruits and vegetables using more than 43,000 instances of sample data provided by the USDA and FDA. Data were measured based on the number of detectable pesticides per crop, the percent of samples exhibiting pesticides and the total quantity of pesticides.
With nearly 70% of U.S. produce containing traces of pesticides, according to the EWG report, and the same handful of items consistently topping the group’s list, it begs the question, how important is this ranking?
This annual list, which the EWG has produced since 2004, attracts a significant amount of publicity and criticism. Many consumers know about this list, but depending on their proclivities, they are likely to react differently to its information. Those that are looking to eat clean or reduce their intake of chemicals may actively seek out EWG’s rankings as they are based on USDA and FDA data. However, the average consumer may also find that the same data is a fear-mongering tactic and either ignore it or forego purchasing produce altogether — a criticism levied by industry groups.
The lack of movement in the list’s rankings suggests that neither consumers nor farmers find pesticides sufficiently detrimental to human health or are willing to face the financial ramifications to remove them from produce production. Industry-related groups have latched onto this argument saying that the pesticide residues left on fresh produce are well below safety levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the USDA's Pesticide Data Program report published in 2015.
One group which argues that pesticides do not present a significant risk to the consumer is the Alliance for Food and Farming, a California-based organization of commodity boards, major farm groups and individual growers. In a press release, the group said the list has the capacity to “invoke misplaced safety fears” and that it “causes misplaced concern about whether conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables are safe to eat.”
The Alliance for Food and Farming pointed to washing produce as a solution, citing FDA guidance that rinsing fruits and vegetables can reduce and often eliminate pesticide residues. For its part, the EWG report noted that residual pesticides showed up even after the items were cleaned.
To compound the importance of the effects of pesticides in food, recent studies have shown that switching from a conventional to an all-organic diet can significantly reduce synthetic pesticide levels in the human body in less than a week. Pesticides have been shown to affect fertility rates, birth defects, allergies and BMI.
EWG recommended consumers switch to organic consumption to improve health. However, this list, with its years of similar rankings, may not be getting through to new consumers or it has already had an impact on those that would influenced by the report.
Although pesticides may no longer grab the consumer's attention like they used to, chemicals are an issue that has been shown to be important to many people. Shoppers are consistently pushing manufacturers to clean up labels and use pronounceable, recognizable ingredients. Perhaps if the EWG found an intersection between the produce used in production and the number of pesticides in the end result, it may have more success in grabbing Americans’ attention.