Every spring, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases their annual Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists. The EWG claims to be ranking fruits and vegetables based on the levels of pesticides from “dirtiest” to “cleanest,” but that’s not really the case. Despite their efforts to get consumers to purchase organic versions of the “dirtiest” fruits and vegetables on the list, consumers are becoming more and more aware of the fact that these lists don’t help, and in some cases can even be harmful.
It’s time to ditch the Dirty Dozen list for good, and here are 12 reasons why:
1. The EWG manipulates the publicly available data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program to scare consumers about perfectly safe conventional produce. The PDP annual summaries consistently show that over 99 percent of sampled products have residues well below EPA tolerances, which are set based on an extensive and rigorous risk assessment reflecting all the toxicological information available. In fact, the residues are so incredibly low (parts per BILLION levels) that we’d essentially have to eat a toxic level of any of these foods before even reaching a level in which the pesticide residues may have negative effects.
2. It’s not an assessment of actual risk. By the EWG’s own admission, the Dirty Dozen “does not incorporate risk assessment into the calculations. All pesticides are weighted equally, and we do not factor in the levels deemed acceptable by the EPA.” Peer-reviewed research shows that exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides on the 12 commodities pose negligible risks to consumers.
3. The methodology used by the EWG lacks scientific credibility. The organization’s “analysis” completely disregards what the chemical is, at what concentration it occurs on the food, and how that compares to the crop-chemical-specific Environmental Protection Agency tolerance levels. Remember that risk = hazard x exposure, so if an approach is not taking hazard and dose of each specific chemical into account, the ranking is meaningless. It’d be like telling consumers to avoid fruits and vegetables with naturally occurring compounds that could be harmful at high doses, but leaving out the fact that they occur at such low doses that it’s not a health concern. Just because a chemical is present, does not mean that it is harmful in the amount present.
4. They don’t mention that fact that organic farming uses pesticides, too, and that the organic versions of these foods often have detectable levels of pesticide residues as well. Organic approved pesticides have overlapping toxicities to those used in conventional farming, so the assumption that these pesticides are inherently safer without even conducting a proper risk assessment just disregards basic chemistry and toxicology. In fact, peer-reviewed research shows that substitution of organic forms of the 12 commodities for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risks because the residues on both are so low.
5. They leave out the fact that the USDA PDP is not set up to be able to detect most of the organic-approved pesticides because it would require expensive and specific assays. Again, this just reiterates the fact that they have not conducted a proper risk assessment to come up with their lists.
6. They conveniently leave out the fact that year after year the PDP data also shows that a small number of synthetic pesticide residues not allowed in organic farming are detected on most organic crops as shown in this analysis by Ph.D. Plant Pathologist Steven Savage. However, it is not a health concern just as it’s not a concern for conventional because the detections are far below the tolerance levels.
7. The EWG falsely claims that “organic standards prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides,” and completely ignore the fact that there is an allowance in the USDA’s National Organic Program rules stating that if a synthetic pesticide residue is detected on an organic product, if the level is 5 percent or less of the EPA tolerance, it is considered “unintentional” and thus not a violation of the organic certification standard. In this analysis of the 2017 PDP data by Savage, he shows that 99.2 percent of the organic samples from the U.S. and 98.4 percent of the organic imports would have met the 5 percent or less standard. What is so shocking and goes against the EWG’s narrative is that 96.3 percent of the conventional samples from the U.S. and 94.1 percent of the imported conventional samples would also “qualify” if they had been organic samples being tested for compliance. Year after year the PDP data demonstrate that pesticide residues found on foods tested are detected at levels well below the EPA tolerances and pose no safety concern.
8. The EWG is largely funded by the organic industry with ties to the likes of Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farms, and Earthbound Farms, just to name a few. Their board members include one of most well-known charlatans, Dr. Mark Hyman, who sells dietary supplements and detox products. So, if you think that they are simply an unbiased organization that does what’s best for consumers, that couldn’t be further from the truth. They have incentive to scare consumers over conventional produce in order to help increase sales of organic, and that’s exactly what they’re doing with this list year after year.
9. It promotes science illiteracy and perpetuates a misunderstanding of some of the most basic chemistry and toxicology concepts such as understanding that whether a chemical is natural or synthetic tells you precisely nothing about its toxicity and that the dose makes the poison applies to everything we consume.
10. This list disrespects farmers by disparaging the safe and nutritious fruits and vegetables they work so hard to provide.
11. The Dirty Dozen list isn’t just benign misinformation. It can cause some real harm. A recent study showed that fear-based messaging regarding pesticide residues resulted in low-income consumers stating they were less like to purchase any produce — organic or conventional.
12. Every year more and more registered dietitians speak out against the Dirty Dozen. Fear-based messaging that raises unnecessary fears about the safety of fruits and vegetables may be negatively impacting consumption. With only one in 10 Americans eating enough fruits and vegetables each day, we should be promoting consumption rather than discouraging it with fear-based marketing tactics like the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists.
So if you haven’t already, ditch the Dirty Dozen and eat your dang fruits and vegetables whether conventional, organic, fresh, frozen, or canned!
Food Science Babe is the pseudonym of an agvocate and writer who focuses specifically on the science behind our food. She has a degree in chemical engineering and has worked in the food industry for more than decade, both in the conventional and in the natural/organic sectors.