From produce aisle to checkout lane: All things grocery in Washington

Dirty Dozen list: Should you pay any attention?

June 14, 2011 - 12:20 PM
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Breaking all over the Internet this week: urgent reports on the “dirtiest” produce. Using data from the USDA and FDA, the Environmental Working Group released its yearly “dirty dozen” list, a compilation of the fruits and vegetables that tested highest on government screenings for pesticides. Accompanying this frighteningly titled list is the “clean 15,” the 15 pieces of produce that tested lowest. The apple, symbol of wholesomeness and frequent educational icon, tops the dirty list, followed by equally innocent-seeming produce like strawberries, peaches, and grapes.

Not highlighted in the EWG’s scary release—which also tells you that pesticides are linked to neurological deficits, ADHD, and cancer, and the advice to avoid exposure to pesticides—is the fact that just 0.3 percent of all the food samples showed residues exceeding EPA standards. This “dirty dozen” might have tested highest for pesticide residue, but a teensy fraction of those fruits and vegetables were actually not up to code.

Mark Gedris of the U.S. Apple Association stresses that apples are safe to eat, which the EWG does not dispute. The industry is threatened by lots of predators, Gedris says, including bugs and fungi. “Our growers must take steps to protect their fruit from injury from these pests,” he says in defense of pesticides. “The fact of the matter is that apples are safe to eat. Our growers go through very strict guidelines for the use of pesticides. So we don’t really know the purpose of the list.”

Ray Gilmer of the United Fresh Produce Association has a guess why EWG produces the list. “Everybody loves lists,” he says, and the “alarmist” nature of this one gets noticed. “It’s trying to get attention for their group,” Gilmer says, but “it sounds really kind of sensational to call these things dirty.” He adds, “The biggest danger is that it’s so sensational, it might scare people off buying produce at all.”

So why, dear EWG, produce a list of the “dirtiest” produce that are in all probability still perfectly safe to eat? Spokesperson Sara Sciammacco stresses that EWG is not trying to tell people not to eat apples. “It’s just information for the consumers, especially the consumer who’s really concerned about pesticide exposure,” she says. The group’s press release does include a statement that “health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.” That’s two paragraphs down from the quote from a doctor saying that people should avoid pesticides whenever possible. Also the word “cancer.”

Sciammacco says the point of the list is to “make a really simple shoppers’ guide so the average consumer can understand the data.” The list is indeed simple—so simple, that it includes no information about how few of these apples, nectarines, bell peppers, et al do not actually meet EPA standards. Just a handy cut-out to take with you shopping that lists the “dirty dozen” with the instruction to “buy these organic.” The fill-in-the-blank afterthought might as well be “if at all.”

The problem, Gilmer says, is that this kind of marketing is beginning to stick with people. For a while, he says, the EWG’s list “was just a yearly irritant.” Now, “we’re beginning to take it more seriously.” Gilmer says consumer research is starting to show that these types of stories are affecting buying patterns, at least in one study of women in California (not available to link to, sadly). “The research shows it’s beginning to have an impact,” he says.

As if apples didn’t have enough to worry about with stinkbugs and all, Gedris says his association is hard at work getting the message out that apples are safe. The U.S. apple industry is trying to turn the listing tactic against the EWG. “We also countered with our own list,” he says. “The ‘delicious dozen.’”

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