Frequently Asked Questions About Produce and Pesticides

Why did EWG decide to release the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce this year, amid concerns about the coronavirus?

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According to the most current information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food. Before preparing or eating food it is important to always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds for general food safety. Throughout the day wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or going to the bathroom.” Consumers may also want to review food safety guidance from the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the European Food Safety Authority.*

With its annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, EWG’s goal is to educate the public about fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues, so that consumers can make the best decisions for their families.

The concerning times we live in now do not negate these facts:

  • 99 percent of conventional raisins tested by USDA had residues of at least two pesticides.
  • 91 percent of organic raisins had residues of at least two pesticides.
  • Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that consuming produce high in pesticide residue (like the items on our Dirty Dozen list) increase the risk of certain negative health impacts, and that choosing organic can have almost immediate impacts on the amounts of residues in a person’s body.

Based on these facts, we make these commonsense recommendations to consumers:

  • Organic raisins are a better choice than conventional raisins.
  • Prunes are an even better option than either conventional or organic raisins, since they tend to have much lower pesticide residues than either.
  • Consumers seeking fresh produce with the lowest pesticide residues can buy organic versions of items on our Dirty Dozen list and conventional or organic versions of produce on our Clean 15. There are also many organic and Clean 15 options in the frozen food aisle.
  • Everyone should eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventional. The health benefits of such a diet outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.

Ignoring science might make reality more palatable for some, but it doesn’t change it. At EWG, we think consumers have the right to know what they’re being exposed to and what they can do about it. And we think most people would agree – which is why we update our Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ each year.

As long as these chemicals remain in use and turn up on produce, we’ll keep publishing the Shopper’s Guide. And we’ll keep investigating pesticides and other chemicals that can harm humans – especially children – as part of our ongoing fight for consumers’ right to live healthier lives in a healthier environment.

* If you are experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19, please consult your physician. This material is for general informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice.

How does the coronavirus affect fresh produce? Can the virus be spread through food?

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According to the most current information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food. Before preparing or eating food it is important to always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds for general food safety. Throughout the day wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or going to the bathroom.”

Many of the most recent foodborne illness outbreaks have been caused by the consumption of tainted produce, including leafy greens and melons. To better protect consumers, both the CDC and the FDA recommend thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before preparing and eating them.

Other tips to protect yourself and your family from getting ill from foodborne pathogens include peeling produce when possible, removing the outer layers of leafy greens, washing cutting boards and other food preparation surfaces with warm water and soap, and cooking vegetables at higher heat than you otherwise might.

See also guidance from the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the European Food Safety Authority.

* If you are experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19, please consult your physician. This material is for general informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice.

How does EWG respond to Shopper's Guide critics from the food and farming industry?

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The following letter from the Environmental Working Group is to members of the board of directors of the agribusiness front group Alliance for Food and Farming. EWG calls on these business leaders and the entire industry to step up and do a much better job preventing foodborne illnesses and protecting both consumers and farmworkers from pesticide exposure.

Should we eat more fruits and vegetables? What about the pesticide residues?

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What can I do to reduce my exposure to pesticides?

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How does EWG come up with its Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce?

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Do we know enough about the effects of pesticides on people?

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Should we eat more fruits and vegetables?

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Yes! According to Department of Agriculture data, Americans have been eating roughly the same quantities of fruits and vegetables for years.1 This flat trend worries nutritionists, who recommend that adults and children consume at least two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables daily. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that this advice is routinely ignored: Fewer than a third of all adults meet the current guidelines.

The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables. And with EWG’s Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™, consumers don’t have to choose between pesticides and a healthy diet.

How many pesticides can be found on conventionally grown produce?

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The USDA’s tests have found widespread pesticide contamination on popular fruits and vegetables. At least one pesticide was found on 70 percent of the produce analyzed by EWG, based on tests of samples collected annually by the USDA.2

Why should I be concerned about pesticides?

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Pesticides are toxic by design. They are created expressly to kill living organisms – insects, plants and fungi that are considered “pests.” Many pesticides pose health dangers to people. These risks have been confirmed by independent scientists and physicians around the world in addition to U.S. and international government agencies. The potential health problems connected to pesticides include brain and nervous system toxicity, cancer and hormone disruption.

Should I stop eating strawberries, nectarines and other produce items on your Dirty Dozen™ list?

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No, that has never been the intended message of the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. We recommend eating produce from the Dirty Dozen list rather than foods or snacks that are not as healthful, such as fat-, sugar- or additive-laden processed foods. And by choosing produce from the Clean Fifteen™ list, you can have all the benefits of eating more produce while also reducing your exposure to pesticides.

Are pesticide residues legal? Safe?

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Most pesticide residues fall below government limits and are legal. But legal limits aren’t always safe. The Environmental Protection Agency’s safety levels, called “tolerances,” help agency regulators determine whether farmers are applying pesticides properly. If tolerance levels were set to protect all children eating produce, as EWG believes they should be, more fruits and vegetables would fail to meet them.

The 1996 Food Quality Protection Act required the EPA to reevaluate its safety levels by 2006 to ensure they protected consumers from excessive pesticide use. As a result, the EPA barred some pesticides and restricted others, but current EPA rules still don’t protect people's health.

Some liken pesticide tolerances to a 500 mph speed limit: If the rules of the road are so loose that it’s impossible to violate them, nobody can feel safe.

Shouldn't I try to buy everything organic?

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EWG recommends buying organic whenever possible. Not only is reducing your exposure to pesticides a smart move but buying organic also sends a message that you support environmentally friendly farming practices that minimize soil erosion, safeguard workers, and protect water quality and wildlife.

However, we know that organics are not accessible or affordable for everyone, so we created EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce to help consumers make the healthiest choices given their circumstances.

EWG always recommends eating fruits and vegetables, even conventionally grown, instead of processed foods and other less healthy alternatives.

What if I wash and peel my fruits and vegetables?

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The data used to create EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce is from produce tested as it is typically eaten. This means it’s washed and, when applicable, peeled. For example, bananas are peeled before testing, and blueberries and peaches are washed. Because all produce has been thoroughly cleaned before analysis, washing a fruit or vegetable would not change its ranking in EWG’s Shopper’s Guide.

Remember, if you don’t wash conventional produce, the risk of ingesting pesticides is even greater than reflected by the USDA test data. Unlike USDA, California tests for pesticides on unwashed and unpeeled produce. Its tests routinely find much higher concentrations of pesticides.3

EWG has not evaluated produce washes for efficacy or potentially toxicity. Since some plants absorb pesticides systemically, a produce wash would have limited effect. The safest choice is to use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to avoid conventional versions of those fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues.

How does EWG come up with its Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce?

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EWG's Shopper’s Guide is based on laboratory tests done by the Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Testing Program and the Food and Drug Administration. Most data come from USDA tests, which include a large number of fruit and vegetable crops, and a large number of pesticides.

How do you determine the ranking of a fruit or vegetable?

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We combine six different measures of contamination to come up with composite scores for each type of produce. They are:

  • Percent of samples tested that had detectable pesticides.
  • Percent of samples that had two or more pesticides.
  • Average number of pesticides found on a sample.
  • Average amount (in parts per million) of all pesticides found.
  • Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample.
  • Total number of pesticides found on the crop.

To make the Dirty Dozen list as useful as possible, we present data on the fruits and vegetables that consumers are more likely to purchase. We combine corn on the cob and frozen corn and list them as “sweet corn.”

Is there a difference between domestic and imported produce?

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EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce is based on samples of produce available to U.S. consumers and includes both domestic and imported produce. We typically combined test results for domestic and imported fruits and vegetables. However, if we observed a big difference between a food’s imported and domestic scores or found notable differences in the toxicity of particular pesticide residues, we took account of this in the rankings.

What does "organic" mean?

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Organic is a designation used by the Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program to certify food that was produced without synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, genetic engineering, radiation or sewage sludge.

What about genetically engineered crops? Why is sweet corn on the Clean Fifteen list?

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A small percentage of sweet corn, zucchini and yellow squash sold in the U.S. is genetically modified. Most Hawaiian papaya is GMO. In 2016, the Department of Agriculture estimated that 8 percent of sweet corn, 12 percent of squash and about two-thirds of papaya grown in the U.S. were GMO. Of these, only GMO sweet corn is bred to withstand direct use of herbicides. Americans who want to avoid eating any GMO produce should buy organic fruits and vegetables.

Most starchy “field corn” and soy grown in this country are genetically modified to withstand direct applications of Roundup and sometimes 2,4-D, a lesser-known toxic herbicide with known health risks. These crops are processed into oils, corn syrup and other common ingredients in processed foods. If you want to avoid genetically modified foods, look for items that are organic or that bear the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label. We recommend that people use EWG's Shopper's Guide To Avoiding GMO Food, Food Scores database and Healthy Living app, which can help shoppers identify foods likely to contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Do we know enough about the effects of pesticide on people?

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No. Americans are likely polluted far more with pesticides than current studies report. Agribusiness and pesticide companies are not required to determine whether their chemicals are present in people, not even for compounds that are widely found in the food supply. The CDC’s national biomonitoring program has likely only scratched the surface in its efforts to determine the human body burden of pesticides.

Pesticides are designed to kill living organisms. The implications of wide-scale pesticide pollution in Americans’ bodies have not been definitively established. However, studies of neurotoxic organophosphate compounds used on some fruits and vegetables have found that children with high exposures were at greater risks of impaired intelligence and neurological problems.

There is an extensive body of evidence demonstrating that pesticides harm workers, damage the environment and are toxic to laboratory animals. The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for setting standards for pesticides in food to ensure that exposures stay well below the doses known to be harmful.

But because of the complexity of people’s diets, the variation in pesticide residues on foods, and other lifestyle, genetic and environmental factors contributing to disease, it is difficult to rule out the risks of pesticide residues in the American diet.

What do human studies tell us about risks to children?

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A 1993 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “infants and children differ both qualitatively and quantitatively from adults in their exposure to pesticide residues in foods,” and that some children exceeded safe levels of pesticides in their diets. Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency has banned or restricted many highly toxic pesticides. However, scientists have presented more troubling information about the effects of currently used pesticides on children’s growing bodies.

For example, organophosphate pesticides have been shown to damage nervous system function by blocking acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that stops nerve cells from firing. When nerve cells fire unceasingly, acute poisoning or long-term nerve damage can result. Many recent studies show that even subtle nervous system depression can have profound effects on brain development during pregnancy and childhood.

Studies in a California agricultural region have shown that infants are more at risk for organophosphate toxicity than older children and adults, because their systems are less able to detoxify these chemicals. The most sensitive newborn was found to be 65 to 130 times more affected than the least sensitive adult.4

Three epidemiological studies published jointly in 2011 showed a clear link between an American mother’s exposure to organophosphate insecticides during pregnancy and deficits in children’s learning and memory that persisted through ages 6 to 9:

  • Columbia University researchers linked deficits in IQ and working memory among 7-year-olds born in New York City to prenatal exposure to the pesticide chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate that was popular for residential pest control until the EPA banned its use in homes, in 2001. Children continue to be exposed to organophosphate pesticides that contaminate common foods.
  • Researchers from the Mount Sinai Medical Center linked prenatal organophosphate exposures among New York City-born children to impaired perceptual reasoning, a measure of nonverbal problem-solving skills.
  • Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that children in a farmworker community born to women with high organophosphate exposures had lower intelligence scores at age 7 than children born to women with lower pesticide exposures.

Between 2014 and 2017, EPA scientists reviewed a key organophosphate, chlorpyrifos, on the basis of the results of the Columbia University study. This led EPA scientists to conclude that even tiny amounts of chlorpyrifos on food posed a risk to children’s brain development. However, former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt overturned a proposed ban on the chemical, in March 2017, and indicated that chlorpyrifos would remain on the market until the EPA completes its scheduled reregistration review, in 2022. Advocates sued the EPA to reinstate the chlorpyrifos ban and, in August 2018, the federal court ordered the agency to reestablish the ban. In 2019, the EPA announced it would allow chlorpyrifos to continue to be used on conventional crops. It is not allowed for use on organic produce.

Are pesticides detected in people's bodies?

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Yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national biomonitoring program has detected pesticides in the blood and urine samples from 96 percent of more than 5,000 Americans ages 6 and older.5

As expected, food residues are the dominant source of pesticide exposures. Several studies have demonstrated that pesticide exposures drop when people switch to an all-organic diet and rise again once they return to eating conventionally grown foods.6

Is government monitoring sufficient to ensure the safety of conventional crops?

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No. Neither pesticide residue monitoring nor dietary surveys adequately capture the variety of pesticide exposures Americans face. In 2014, the Government Accountability Office audited efforts by the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture to monitor pesticide residues on food crops. It identified key deficiencies, like the USDA’s failure to test foods for residues of five commonly used pesticides: glyphosate; 2,4-D; mancozeb; MCPA; paraquat and methyl bromide.7 Glyphosate and 2,4-D are herbicides with growing uses for genetically engineered commodity crops; people are likely to ingest more of these residues in processed foods as the use of GMO crops increases.

Have pesticide restrictions improved the safety of the food supply?

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Yes, but not enough. The Food Quality Protection Act, passed in 1996, mandates strong protections for public health. This act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set health-based standards for pesticides in food, considering exposures from water, indoor air, food and cumulative pesticide risks. The law stressed the protection of infants, children and other vulnerable people. It requires the EPA to review the safety of each use of every agricultural pesticide at least once every 15 years. Over the past two decades, the EPA has restricted many uses of toxic insecticides like the organophosphates.

But the EPA has only selectively applied the voluntary tenfold safety factor advocated by children’s health experts. In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the EPA has used a child-protective factor on 11 out of 59 pesticide assessments, and in half of those cases used only a threefold safety factor instead of a tenfold safety factor.8

Are newer pesticides safer than older versions?

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Pesticides called neonicotinoids, instead of more toxic organophosphate and carbamate pesticides, are now being used to kill insects on fruits and vegetables.

Neonicotinoids are the fastest growing class of insecticides. The Department of Agriculture finds neonicotinoid pesticide residues on over 19 percent of foods it surveys, with frequent detections on cherries, lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, tomatoes, strawberries and sweet bell peppers.

A decade of research has made it clear that neonicotinoids are highly toxic to honeybees and other pollinator species. Mounting evidence suggests that stresses caused by neonicotinoids play at least some role in the colony collapse plaguing global honeybee populations. The European Union enacted a continent-wide moratorium on three neonicotinoid pesticides – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – in 2013, ultimately deciding to ban the outdoor use of these pesticides, in 2018.

The EPA currently considers neonicotinoids to be a relatively low risk to human health. But the National Toxicology Program, or NTP, reviewed the evidence for human safety in early 2017 and concluded that existing studies are incomplete. The NTP is testing neonicotinoids to explore additional concerns they may pose for human health.10

References

  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fruit and Tree Nut Yearbook. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2017; 89022.Available at usda.library.cornell.edu/concern/publications/6969z076v
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pesticide Data Program. 2018. Available at www.ams.usda.gov/datasets/pdp
  3. California Department of Pesticide Reform, “Pesticide Residues on Fresh Produce.” 2015. Available at www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/enforce/residue/resi2015/rsfr2015.htm
  4. Clement Furlong et al., “PON1 Status of Farmworker Mothers and Children as a Predictor of Organophosphate Sensitivity.” Pharmacogenetics and Genomics, 2006; 16(3):183. Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16495777. See also: Nina Holland et al., “Paraoxonase Polymorphisms, Haplotypes, and Enzyme Activity in Latino Mothers and Newborns.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 2006; 114(7). Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16835048
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009.
  6. Chensheng Lu et al., “Dietary Intake and Its Contribution to Longitudinal Organophosphorous Pesticide Exposure in Urban/Suburban Children.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 2008; 116(4):537-542. See also: Chensheng Lu et al., “Assessing Children's Dietary Exposure: Direct Measurement of Pesticide Residues in 24-Hour Duplicate Food Samples.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 2010; 118(11):1625-1630. See also: Cynthia L. Curl et al., “Estimating Pesticide Exposure From Dietary Intake and Organic Food Choices: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA).” Environmental Health Perspectives, 2015. Available at ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1408197/
  7. Government Accountability Office, “Food Safety: FDA and USDA Should Strengthen Pesticide Residue Monitoring Programs and Further Disclose Monitoring Limitations.” 2014; GAO-15-38.
  8. National Academy of Sciences, “Toxicity Texting for Assessment of Environmental Agents.” Interim Report. Committee on Toxicity Testing and Assessment of Environmental Agents, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, National Academies Press, 2006. Available at www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309100925&page=132
  9. European Commission, “Bees & Pesticides: Commission Goes Ahead With Plan To Better Protect Bees.” 2013. Available at ec.europa.eu/food/animal/liveanimals/bees/neonicotinoids_en.htm
  10. Andria Cimino et al., “Effects of Neonicotinoid Pesticide Exposure on Human Health: A Systematic Review.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 2017; DOI:10.1289/EHP515. Available at ehp.niehs.nih.gov/ehp515/

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