By: Candess Zona-Mendola

No, I am not talking about the 1960s war movie starring the late and great Lee Marvin. We are talking about a different kind of war. The War of the Root [Vegetables]. I am referencing the ongoing organic versus non-organic debate concerning produce. Those in support of the organic produce revolution have posted several articles arguing that certain types of produce are more prone to higher concentrations of pesticides than others – even after several attempts at washing.

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The Environmental Working Group is one such organization who, on a yearly basis, seeks to educate the general public on the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to produce and pesticides. They label such bad inorganic produce as “The Dirty Dozen.” The Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ reported that “USDA tests found a total 146 different pesticides on thousands of fruit and vegetable samples examined in 2014.”[1] They purport to have analyzed the United States Department of Agriculture and FDA tests on over 48 produce items and the domestic and import tests on two specific food items – blueberries and snap peas. All 50 items and their detailed findings based on their own internal analysis on each item can be viewed on their website here. Please note, this post has not reported on the non-GMO and GE findings of the Environmental Working Group.


Let’s face it, purchasing everything in your shopping cart as solely organic can be expensive. The typical American family is most likely unable to accomplish such a task week after week. Luckily, not all fruits and vegetables need be only organic. Those wanting to eat healthy on a budget can do so by prioritizing their purchases based on the least likely to contain large amounts of harmful pesticides to most likely to contain them.


The United States Department of Agriculture runs regular tests to determine the amount of pesticides that are making it from the farm to your plate[2]. This program, coined the Pesticide Data Program, maintains a database of their sampling, testing, and reports. The United States Department of Agriculture prides itself on monitoring “pesticide residues on agricultural commodities in the U.S. food supply, with an emphasis on those commodities highly consumed by infants and children” with both federal and state agencies. CNN reported that this was because “their [infant’s and children’s] developing bodies may be more vulnerable to harm from certain chemicals.”[3]


What is Safe?


Most vegetables, like onions and broccoli, are safe to ingest without purchasing them as labeled “organic.” To put it simply, you can go ahead and buy these foods from the regular section of any produce department with minimal concern to their pesticide concentrations. Please note, the FDA still recommends that all produce be properly washed prior to preparation and consumption with running water[4]. For more tips, tricks, and processes on preparation of produce, please visit the FDA here. The Environmental Working Group has labeled these as the “Clean 15.” In short, this list comprises of the following produce:

  • Onions
  • Avocado
  • Sweet Corn (Frozen)
  • Pineapples
  • Mango
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet Peas (Frozen)
  • Kiwi Fruit
  • Bananas
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Papaya

It is very important to note that, no single fruit sample from the Environmental Working Group’s Clean Fifteen™ tested positive for more than four types of pesticides.  In fact, avocados appear to be the safest produce item to ingest – organically or inorganically – with only one percent with pesticide residues showing in the test results.


What May Not Be Safe?


However, others fruits and vegetables may not so trustworthy in the pesticide residue department. According to the Environmental Working Group, the following fruits and vegetables comprise the previous “Dirty Dozen” list[5]:

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Grapes (Imported)
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes

The Environmental Working Group changed its tune this year when it comes to potatoes, strawberries, and apples. Apples, the former number one pesticide offender, stepped aside this year over strawberries. The Environmental Working Group noted that “more than 98 percent of strawberry samples, peaches, nectarines, and apples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue.”[6] It further was noted that, of these samples, some showed over seventeen different types of pesticide residues.


The Environmental Working Group also established a Plus section wherein they advised their audience that leafy greens and hot peppers were left out of the list, as they are doused with different pesticides than the typical fruit or vegetable. Purportedly, the pesticides for these produce items are not used on other produce as they are highly toxic. The Environmental Working Group recommends that all who regularly consume leafy greens and hot peppers either purchase their produce organic-only or thoroughly cook them prior to consumption. They claim that the cooking process diminishes the residue presence of pesticides.


Not Everyone is Convinced


The Alliance for Food and Farming openly condemned the findings and analysis as presented by the Environmental Working Group. Their recent statement included concerns that the Environmental Working Group “uses no established scientific procedures to develop the list” and “EWG’s “list” has been discredited by the scientific community.”[7] They further cite that the United States Department of Agriculture report states that the findings show “residues do not pose a safety concern.”


The Alliance for Food and Farming urged the consumer and bloggers alike to read the United States Department of Agriculture’s report for themselves to determine if they agree with the assessments by the Environmental Working Group. The Alliance for Food and Farming insinuates that the Environmental Working Group changed its number one “Dirty Dozen” fruit in an attempt to gain more followers and cause a widespread concern – as strawberries are a popular fruit among young children. The Alliance for Food and Farming claims to have predicted this change many years prior. In an effort to dissuade the Environmental Working Group’s war on strawberries, the Alliance for Food and Farming cited the University of California’s Personal Chemical Exposure Program’s study on child consumption relating to strawberries. Marilyn Dolan, the Alliance for Food and Farming’s executive director, stated in its press release that “For strawberries, a child could eat 1,508 servings of strawberries in a day and still not have any effects from pesticide residues which shows how low residues are, if present at all.”


Regardless of the Alliance for Food and Farming’s stance, there has been no denial that there exist pesticide residues on consumer’s produce. The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that extremely low levels of pesticide residue are not food safety risks. However, what is considered “extremely low” has yet to be specifically defined.


You can read the United States Department of Agriculture’s report for yourself here and decide if Environmental Working Group’s “The Dirty Dozen” are indeed dirty.