January 29, 2023

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Pesticide residue found in over 70 percent of non-organic US produce: report

More than 70 percent of non-organic fresh fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S. contain traces of potentially harmful pesticides, according to a new report from an advocacy group.

The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2022 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce highlights a variety of potentially unsafe produce based on residue tests conducted by federal agencies.

Strawberries, spinach, kale, collard greens and mustard greens again topped the group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of non-organic produce to avoid based on its research. That list is largely unchanged from last year, though bell peppers and hot peppers moved up several spots.

Meanwhile, the group’s “Clean Fifteen” list of conventional fruits and vegetables that present minimal risk underwent more significant changes, with broccoli, cauliflower and eggplant dropped from the list due to lagging testing while mangoes, watermelon and sweet potatoes were added.

“If you’re eating fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen, a lot and very frequently, if you’re a child or potentially pregnant — these sort of sensitive windows of development — those are times also where we would recommend it being better to opt for organic if possible, or choose items on the Clean Fifteen,” Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at EWG, told The Hill.

EWG scientists updated this year’s guide by analyzing the latest pesticide residue tests available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which includes some 45,000 produce samples, though each produce type is not tested every year.

Of the 46 items included in the group’s shopper guide, the Dirty Dozen foods — strawberries, spinach, kale/collard/mustard greens, nectarines, apples, grapes, bell/hot peppers, cherries, peaches, pears, celery and tomatoes — showed the most overall pesticide contamination, the study found.

“Strawberries and greens, they grow low to the ground,” Temkin said. “They’re just known to need pesticides from a conventional perspective, to sort of ward away certain pests, but there are organic varieties of them that have far fewer pesticide detections.”

Within the Dirty Dozen, the analysis showed that more than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines and grapes tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.

Kale, collard greens and mustard greens, as well as hot and bell peppers, had the most pesticides detected, with 103 and 101 pesticides in total, respectively. 

The most frequently identified pesticide on these greens was DCPA, sold under the brand name Dacthal. It has been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a possible carcinogen, the report noted.

Spinach samples, meanwhile, had 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop sampled, according to the guide.

The report also identified several samples of peppers that contained concerning levels of pesticides that can harm the nervous system, such as oxamyl, acephate and chlorpyrifos. While the EPA implemented a ban on chlorpyrifos on food crops last year, the most recent produce samples were taken well before then.

The report found, however, that nearly  70 percent of the produce on the Clean Fifteen list had no detectable pesticide residues. 

Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest, with less than 2 percent of samples showing detectable pesticides, though other relatively clean items included pineapple, onions, papaya and frozen peas.

The Shopper’s Guide criticized the USDA for failing to test for certain pesticides, like glyphosate, which can be found in high levels on certain types of grains and beans.

Tests commissioned by EWG in 2018 showed that almost three-fourths of popular oat-based food samples had residues exceeding levels that the group’s scientists deem safe for children.

The Hill has reached out to the USDA for comment.

Overall, the group urged shoppers who eat non-organic foods to reconsider their buying habits, noting many pesticides are found on fruits and vegetables even after they are washed, peeled and scrubbed.

“When you switch from a conventional to an organic diet really rapidly, you will actually see decreases in the measurable concentrations of pesticides in the body,” Temkin said.

Temkin acknowledged many families cannot afford to buy organic produce and emphasized the Shopper’s Guide is not meant to dissuade people from eating fruits and vegetables. In these circumstances, the clean foods list offers affordable, conventional produce options with “really low pesticide residues,” she said.

Temkin said activists are continuing to work on policy and with the EPA to eliminate some of the most harmful pesticides in the U.S. while making sure organic options become increasingly available.

“The priority of the Shopper’s Guide is to make sure that people are consuming fruits and vegetables and not simply avoiding fruits and vegetables for fear of pesticide residues,” she said.