WASHINGTON – Nearly 70 percent of the fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group’s 2020 Dirty Dozen™. Yet the dirtiest produce commodity is not a fresh fruit or vegetable but a dried one – raisins.
NOTE: As all Americans struggle to adapt to the reality of daily life during the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to know that there is no evidence people can be exposed through food. The spread pattern for coronavirus is quite different from those of foodborne pathogens like salmonella and E.coli. That is why, even though the risks of COVID-19 are serious, consumers should continue eating plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables, whether they are conventional or organic.
The Dirty Dozen, together with the Clean Fifteen™, is part of EWG’s annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™, which analyzes Department of Agriculture test data to identify the fresh fruits and vegetables that are most and least contaminated with pesticide residues. The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen include fresh fruits and vegetables only, but this year’s Shopper’s Guide also includes a separate evaluation of raisins, which the USDA tested for the first time since 2007.
Almost every sample of non-organic raisins tested by the USDA – 99 percent – had residues of at least two pesticides, as did 91 percent of organic raisins.
“If we included raisins in our calculations, they would be number one on the Dirty Dozen,” said EWG Toxicologist Thomas Galligan, Ph.D. “Although raisins are a popular snack, consumers concerned about their pesticide consumption may want to consider buying fresh or frozen produce from our Clean Fifteen list instead.”
Children under the age of 15 eat a total of about 208 million pounds of raisins each year – about half of the raisins consumed in the U.S., according to Zion Market Research. The average American consumed about 1.25 pounds of raisins in 2017, the latest year for which the USDA has information. Zion’s industry analysis shows that slightly less than two-thirds of raisins are consumed as ingredients in other foods, with the rest eaten as a stand-alone snack.
EWG suggests that consumers who want to eat raisins buy organic. For those looking for another dried fruit, EWG recommends prunes, which USDA tests found had much lower pesticide residues than either conventional and organic raisins.
The neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos, which can harm the brain and nervous system in children at even low levels, was detected on 5 percent, or 34 out of 670 samples, of conventional raisins, and 6 percent, or five out of 86, of the organic raisin samples.
The State of California, where the majority of the U.S. raisin supply is produced, recently banned all uses of chlorpyrifos because of the risks it poses to both children and farmworkers.
Conventional agriculture operations, including produce industry groups, successfully pressured the Trump administration to allow chlorpyrifos to remain legal nationwide.
The USDA’s tests, conducted under its Pesticide Data Program, also found the controversial class of chemicals called neonicotinoids on almost one-fifth of fruits and vegetables.
Neonics are the fastest growing class of insecticides, despite a decade of research making it clear that they are highly toxic to honeybees and other pollinator species. Some studies on human health also suggest that exposure to neonics may be harmful to the developing fetus and children.
Residues of at least one of three neonicotinoid pesticides banned in the European Union – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – were found on more than half the samples of potatoes, spinach and lettuce tested. At least one of these neonics was also found on more than one-fourth of the samples of U.S. cherries, watermelon and strawberries.
Legal Does Not Mean Safe
Before conducting its tests, USDA washes, scrubs and peels fruits and vegetables as consumers would. Most pesticide residues the agency finds fall within government-mandated restrictions.
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.
A recent EWG investigation found that the EPA has failed to add the Food Quality Protection Act–mandated children’s health safety factor to the allowable limits for almost 90 percent of the most common pesticides.
Pesticides are toxic by design. They are created expressly to kill living organisms – insects, plants and fungi that are considered pests. But many pesticides pose health dangers to people, too – including brain and nervous system toxicity, cancer and hormone disruption. These hazards have been confirmed by independent scientists and physicians, U.S. and international government agencies.
How To Use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide
The guide, released every year since 2004, ranks the pesticide contamination of 47 popular conventional fruits and vegetables. It is based on the results of tests by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration of more than 43,000 samples of produce.
The Shopper’s Guide is designed to help consumers make the healthiest choices for their families, given budgetary and other constraints. EWG recommends that whenever possible, consumers purchase organic versions of produce on the Dirty Dozen list. When organic versions are unavailable or not affordable, EWG advises consumers to continue eating fresh produce, even if conventionally grown.
“Although we believe consumers should be concerned about pesticide residues on the food they eat, the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure,” said EWG Toxicologist Alexis Temkin, Ph.D. “With the Shopper’s Guide, consumers don’t have to choose between pesticides and a healthy diet.”
The USDA’s pesticide analyses are not comprehensive. The agency rotates which fruits and vegetables it tests each year. Its tests also don’t cover every pesticide used in crop production – including glyphosate, or Roundup, the most heavily used pesticide in the U.S. A series of tests commissioned by EWG have found high levels of glyphosate in many oat-based breakfast products marketed to children.
COVID-19 and Foodborne Pathogens
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food.” The agency recommends consumers always wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before preparing or eating food and after nose-blowing, coughing, sneezing or using the bathroom.
The CDC estimates roughly one in six Americans get sick each year from foodborne illnesses like E.coli and salmonella, and 3,000 die. Many of the most recent foodborne outbreaks have occurred from people eating tainted produce items, including leafy greens and melons. To better protect consumers, both the CDC and the FDA recommend thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before preparing them to eat.
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 with soap and warm water the cutting boards and other surfaces where food is prepared, and cooking vegetables at higher heat than you may normally do.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, some government functions have been reduced, and it is as yet unclear what that could mean for the EPA’s and the USDA’s capacity to conduct critical monitoring and enforcement.
The Alliance for Food and Farming, the agribusiness front group that regularly attacks EWG’s Shopper’s Guide, has already used the coronavirus outbreak to play on fears about safety in its latest attempt to keep consumers in the dark about pesticide residues on foods.
Pesticides and Children’s Health
“Infants, babies and young children are exquisitely vulnerable to even low levels of pesticide exposure, so it’s important parents and caregivers take steps to safeguard children from these chemicals while also providing them diets rich in healthy fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a world-renowned pediatrician and epidemiologist.
“For many Americans, choosing an all-organic diet is not possible, so using EWG’s guide can help give consumers the tools to provide their families with a mix of both conventional and organic fruits and veggies without the pesticide punch.”
Dr. Landrigan is director of the Program in Global Public Health and the Common Good in the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society at Boston College, a member of the National Academy of Medicine and one of the principal authors of the 1993 National Academy of Sciences study “Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children.” The study led to the enactment of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, which emphasized the importance of children’s health in the setting of safety standards for pesticides on foods.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action. Visit www.ewg.org for more information.