EWG publishes its annual rating of conventional foods with the most and least pesticide residues to fill the void left by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has largely failed to tell Americans they have a right to know about the risks of pesticide exposure and ways they can reduce pesticides in their diets.
The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 marked dramatic progress in the federal government's efforts to protect Americans from dangerous pesticides. The landmark legislation, which EWG played a major role in pushing through Congress, required EPA to assess pesticides in light of their particular dangers to children and to ensure that pesticides posed a "reasonable certainty of no harm" to children or any other high-risk group. This law is credited with reducing the risks posed by pesticide residues on food. It forced American agribusiness to shift away from some of the riskiest pesticides. But worrisome chemicals are not completely out of the food supply. Residues of many hazardous pesticides are still detected on a handful of foods.
A lesser-known "Consumer Right to Know" provision of the 1996 law required that EPA inform people about possible hazards to their health brought about by consuming pesticides with their food. It ordered EPA to publish and distribute in grocery stores plain-English brochures that discussed the risks and benefits of pesticides on food. These brochures were to offer recommendations so shoppers could reduce their dietary exposures to pesticides. The agency published such a brochure in 1999, but it failed to detail the actual risks of pesticide exposures and give consumers clear information about the foods with the most pesticide residues to help them reduce their exposures. EPA stopped publishing it altogether in 2007. Today, EPA offers some information about pesticides and food on its website. But it does not list foods likely to contain the highest amounts of pesticide residues nor those that pose the greatest dangers to human health. Most importantly, the EPA does not offer the "right to know" information Congress required on behalf of consumers in 1996: how to avoid pesticide exposures while still eating a healthy diet.
That's where EWG comes in. Because the EPA has not complied with the Congressional mandate in full, for more than a decade EWG has published an annual guide to help people eat healthy and reduce their exposure to pesticides in produce. Armed with EWG's Shopper's Guide, millions of people have opted for those conventionally-raised fruits and vegetables that tend to test low for pesticide residues. When they want foods whose conventional versions test high for pesticides, they can go for organic.
Some 65 percent of thousands of produce samples analyzed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture test positive for pesticide residues. That's bad news for the growing number of Americans who want to minimize their consumption of pesticides.
Parents' concerns have been validated by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in 2012 issued an important report that said that children have "unique susceptibilities to [pesticide residues'] potential toxicity." The pediatricians' organization cited research that linked pesticide exposures in early life and "pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems." It advised its members to urge parents to consult "reliable resources that provide information on the relative pesticide content of various fruits and vegetables." One key resource, it said, was EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
With EWG's Shopper's Guide, consumers can have the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables with less exposure to pesticides.
See the full list.
European regulators are several steps ahead of their American counterparts. Over the past several years, they have raised new questions about the safety and ecological dangers of a group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. These chemicals are suspected of disrupting human brain development and of killing honeybees and other beneficial insects.
The European Commission has banned diphenylamine, DPA for short, on fruit raised in the 28 European Union member states and has imposed tight restrictions on imported fruit. DPA, a growth regulator and antioxidant, is applied after harvest to most apples conventionally grown in the U.S. and to some U.S.-grown pears, to prevent the fruit skin from discoloring during months of cold storage.
U.S. officials have not followed the Europeans in restricting either neonicotinoids or DPA.
While regulators and scientists debate these and other controversies about pesticide safety, EWG will continue to highlight foods that test positive for the most and the least amounts of pesticides
EWG's Dirty Dozen™ list of produce includes apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes. Each of these foods contained a number of different pesticide residues and showed high concentrations of pesticides relative to other produce items.
EWG's Clean Fifteen™ for 2014 - the produce least likely to hold pesticide residues - are avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes. Relatively few pesticides were detected on these foods, and tests found low total concentrations of pesticides.
For the third year, we have expanded the Dirty Dozen™ with a Plus category to highlight two foods that contain trace levels of highly hazardous pesticides. Leafy greens - kale and collard greens - and hot peppers do not meet traditional Dirty Dozen™ ranking criteria but were frequently contaminated with insecticides that are toxic to the human nervous system. EWG recommends that people who eat a lot of these foods buy organic instead.
Most processed food typically contains one or more ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops. But GE food is not often found in the produce section of American supermarkets. A small percentage of zucchini, yellow squash and sweet corn on grocery store shelves is GE. Most Hawaiian papaya is GE.
Others GE foods are currently being tested and may be approved by the USDA in the future. Since U.S. law does not require labeling of genetically engineered produce, EWG advises people who want to avoid GE crops to purchase organically-grown foods or items bearing the "Non-GMO Project Verified" label. EWG recommends that consumers check EWG's Shopper's Guide To Avoiding GE Food, which is designed to help them identify foods likely to contain genetically engineered ingredients.
EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce is designed to step in where the government falters. It translates an extensive database of pesticide tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and federal Food and Drug Administration on food crops into a user-friendly tool that empowers Americans to reduce their exposures to pesticide. This year's guide draws from 32,000 samples tested by USDA and FDA scientists. They detected pesticides on two of every three samples.
EWG's analysis of the government tests has spotlighted sharp differences in the number and concentrations of pesticides measured on various fruits and vegetables. These findings convince us that people have the power to reduce their intake of pesticides by avoiding the Dirty Dozen crops or purchasing organically-produced fruits and vegetables instead.
Europe restricts common produce pesticides
Neonicotinoid pesticides, developed as substitutes for older and more neurotoxic insecticides, primarily organophosphates and carbamates, have been widely adopted by American, European and other growers over the past decade. USDA testing has found neonicotinoid residues on about 20 percent of all produce samples and as much as 60 percent of broccoli, cauliflower, grapes, spinach and summer squash. Learn More.
Recent scientific research has suggested that neonicotinoids could harm children's brain development and might contribute to the collapse of populations of honeybees and other pollinators. In response to these developments, European officials tightened their guidelines for allowable daily exposures to two neonicotinoid pesticides (EFSA 2013). Last December they declared a two-year moratorium on three neonicotinoids. (European Commission 2013).
Meanwhile in the U.S., EPA officials will soon require new cautionary language and instructions on the labels of neonicotinoid pesticides. On a longer track, they are engaged in a multi-year assessment of neonicotinoid toxicity, expected conclude by 2018 (EPA 2013). Environmental advocates have decried EPA's efforts as slow and inadequate.
In June 2012, the European Commission banned diphenylamine, or DPA, until the pesticide industry could prove it was safe. In the U.S., DPA, a "growth regulator" or antioxidant, is applied to most conventional apples and some pears after harvest to prevent fruit skin from blackening during cold storage. As of March of this year, apples and pears imported into the European Union can contain no more than 0.1 part per million of DPA (EC 2013). The EPA has not studied the risks posed by DPA on apples since 1998.
Pesticides in Baby Food
The USDA's most recent pesticide monitoring data included hundreds of samples of applesauce, carrots, peaches and peas packaged as baby food (USDA 2014). Because cooking reduces levels of pesticides and baby food is cooked before packaging, it tends to contain lower pesticide residues than comparable raw produce.
The European Commission has set an across-the-board limit of no more than 0.01 parts per million of any pesticide in baby food, based on the fact that infants' greater vulnerability to harmful chemicals, compared to older children and adults (European Commission 2006). Some samples of American baby food, particularly applesauce and peaches in baby food tested in 2012 and green beans tested in previous years, exceed the 0.01 legal limit. In contrast to the EU's position, the U.S. has no special rules for pesticide residues in baby food.
The USDA detected 10 different pesticides on at least 5 percent of 777 samples of peach baby food sold in the U.S (USDA 2014). Nearly a third of the peach baby food samples would violate the European guideline for pesticides in baby food because they contain one or several pesticides at concentrations of 0.01 part per million or higher.
The USDA tested 396 baby food applesauce samples for five pesticides (USDA 2014). Some 18 percent of the samples contained acetamiprid, a neonicotinoid pesticide that EC regulators singled out for additional toxicity testing because it might disrupt the developing nervous system (EFSA 2013). Another 17 percent of the samples contained carbendiazim, a fungicide.
The USDA found six pesticides in apple juice, a staple of many children's diets (USDA 2014). About 14 percent of the apple juice samples contained DPA, the pesticide banned in Europe in 2012.
USDA tests did not detect significant pesticide residues on carrots and peas packaged as baby food.
Pesticide use during the growing cycle
USDA testing and EWG's Guide do not reflect the intensity of pesticide use during growing cycles. Assessing the impact of pesticides as crops grow is an enormous task. Pesticide uses change from year to year based on the weather, pest proliferation and EPA's efforts to discourage use of more toxic pesticides. This year EWG took a closer look at two foods, bananas and sweet corn, that receive heavy pesticide applications during production but show few residues on edible plant tissues.
Nearly every conventionally-grown banana sold in the U.S. is imported. Most receive heavy doses of pesticides. Very few pesticide residues are detected on the fruit itself. But consumers concerned about pesticide dangers to workers, farming communities and wildlife should consider organic or Fair Trade certified bananas.
Genetic engineering has been touted as an innovation that will reduce pesticide use and combat unusual crop diseases. These technologies have not lived up to their claims in the case of field corn, which is mostly GE. Crop scientists have genetically engineered corn and also soy to survive blasts of the weed-killer glyphosate - Monsanto's Roundup -- so that farmers can spray this chemical near crops to get rid of weeds. But this practice has set off a vicious cycle in which weeds mutate into so-called "super weeds" resistant to Roundup, and farmers use yet more glyphosate and other potent pesticides to try to defeat the hardier weeds. (Norwegian scientists recently reported detecting "extreme levels" of Roundup on genetically engineered soy in Iowa.)
EWG found that most sweet corn, the type sold in supermarkets and farm stands, is not grown from GE seeds and does not show many pesticide residues.
AAP 2012. Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition and Council on Environmental Health. e1406 -e1415. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-2579. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/5/e1406
EFSA. 2012. Conclusion on the peer review of the pesticide risk assessment of the active substance diphenylamine. European Food Safety Authority, EFSA Journal 10(1): 2486-2527.
EFSA 2013. EFSA assesses potential link between two neonicotinoids and developmental neurotoxicity. European Food Safety Authority. http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/131217.htm and http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/3471.htm
EPA. 2013. EPA's review of the European Food Safety Authority's conclusions regarding studies involving the neonicotinoid pesticides. December 23, 2013. http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/cb/csb_page/updates/2013/efsa-conclus.html
European Commission. 2006. Commission Directive 2006/125/EC of 5 December 2006 on processed cereal-based foods and baby foods for infants and young children. OJ L 339, 6.12.2006: 16 - 35.
European Commission. 2013. Bees & Pesticides: Commission goes ahead with plan to better protect bees. http://ec.europa.eu/food/animal/liveanimals/bees/neonicotinoids_en.htm
USDA. 2012. Pesticide Data Program: Annual Summary, Calendar Year 2010. U.S. Department of Agriculture, May 2012.
USDA. 2014. Pesticide Data Program: Annual Summary, Calendar Year 2012. U.S. Department of Agriculture, February 2014.