The dangerous demonization of our food

Apples, celery, and bell peppers may be hazardous to your health, according to some environmental activists. At least that’s the impression you might get reading the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. But their guide is nothing more than an annual recycling of hogwash.

In fact, EWG’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide is the eighth annual iteration of the group’s unfair and dangerous demonization of healthy fruits and vegetables. These reports twist and spin data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that actually shows the opposite of what the EWG greens claim: pesticide residues are so minute that they pose little to no health risks to US consumers.

In fact, USDA explains its findings in a May 2012 press statement: “Similar to previous years, the 2010 report shows that overall pesticide residues found on foods tested are at levels well below the tolerances set by the EPA. The report does show that residues exceeding the tolerance were detected in 0.25 percent of the samples tested. For baby food–included for the first time in this report – the data showed that no residues were found that exceeded the tolerance levels.”

In other words, this report found that 99.75 percent of samples tested contained residues well below EPA’s “safe level.” Wow, that’s an impressive success rate! It’s a very strong indicator that U.S. consumers have nothing to fear from trace pesticides on their food.

What about the 0.25 percent that had levels above EPA standards? Consumers need not fear even those. Such slight exceedances have no public health impact because EPA standards are exceedingly stringent so that even a child could be exposed at levels thousands of times higher without ill effect.

For example, a research paper by University of Texas Professor Frank Cross highlights findings from number of studies showing that the EPA’s risk estimates overstate pesticide exposure by as much as 99,000 to 463,000 times actual exposure. As a result, standards are actually tens of thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—times more stringent than necessary to protect public health. An occasional exceedance of a few parts-per million makes no difference.

Not surprisingly, after reviewing the USDA data, EPA concluded: “The very small amounts of pesticide residues found in the baby food samples were well below levels that are harmful to children.”

Nonetheless EWG lists 12 fruits and vegetables on a dirty dozen list, suggesting they contain unsafe levels of pesticide residues. Apples, according, to EWG are the biggest offender. Yet, USDA reports one apple out of 744 tested that contained residues above EPA tolerance levels—and by only a tiny amount
(2.4 parts per million).

A small percentage of other apples had minute traces of pesticides for which EPA has no established tolerances for the commodity tested. Such exposures are limited, accidental and of little concern. USDA explains: “Some residues were found with no established tolerance levels but the extremely low levels of those residues are not a food safety risk, and the presence of such residues does not pose a safety concern.”

Unfortunately, EWG’s Shopper’s Guide may discourage consumption of many healthy fruits and vegetables. EWG acknowledges: “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.” Still, they suggest consumers can lower “pesticide intake substantially by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least contaminated produce.”

Seriously, are they suggesting that consumers avoid apples and eat onions (the cleanest commodity according to EWG) instead? It’s more likely that after seeing apples listed as the “dirtiest” commodity on the EWG shopping list, some parents might decide against placing them in their kids’ lunch bags. What a shame if they do.

The Mayo Clinic lists apples as one of “10 great health foods for eating well” noting they are a great source of the soluble fiber pectin, which aids in healthy blood pressure, lowering of cholesterol, and management of glucose levels. Apples are also an excellent source of Vitamin C, which is an antioxidant with a wide range of health benefits. Indeed, there is good reason to recommend an apple a day!

Also on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list are blueberries, which are well-recognized as a super-food that is loaded with anti-oxidants and other great vitamins. Where does the insanity end?

As a partial solution, EWG suggests buying organic food, but organic food is often more expensive and not necessarily a reasonable option for consumers on fixed budgets. Never mind that there isn’t any compelling body of evidence demonstrating that organic food is any safer.

A consumer’s best option is to ignore the greens and listen to the USDA’s recommendations: “Age-old advice remains the same: eat more fruits and vegetables and wash them before you do so. Health and nutrition experts encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables in every meal as part of a healthy diet.”

Angela Logomasini is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.