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GreenSpace: Debate over produce and their pesticide residues

Before we get into the food fight, I should emphasize the one thing all factions agree on: Eating any fruits and vegetables is better than not.
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Before we get into the food fight, I should emphasize the one thing all factions agree on: Eating any fruits and vegetables is better than not.

Beyond that - whether the produce contains pesticide residue and, if so, how much and is that a bad thing - well, here we go.

Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tests thousands of food samples for pesticide residues.

The Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy nonprofit, analyzes the data and releases a shopper's guide, including lists of produce most - and least - likely to have residues.

This year, as usual, apples top the list of what they call the "Dirty Dozen," with 99 percent of samples testing positive for at least one pesticide residue. Samples of other items had more than a dozen pesticides. A single grape contained traces of 15 pesticides.

Many of the foods on the "Clean Fifteen" list have thick skins that would protect them. When it comes to cantaloupes, for instance, about 40 percent had no residues. (See the full report at

The group cites research showing that, in general, organic foods have fewer residues. But they're also pricey. So if money is tight, you "can lower your exposure by focusing your organic purchasing" on the Dirty Dozen, said Sonya Lunder, an EWG scientist.

This list is giving the nation's produce growers a bad case of heartburn.

They point out that the list was not peer-reviewed. Plus, since the EWG doesn't tally the type or concentration of residue, there's no way to determine overall risk.

The USDA itself, in its annual report, published this year in February and based on 2012 testing, noted that residues on the foods tested "are at levels below the tolerances established by the Environmental Protection Agency and do not pose a safety concern." (The report and data are at www.ams.usda. gov/pdp.)

Industry is worried that such veggie-dissing will result in an overall dampening of interest in fruits and vegetables, a battleground for many parents to begin with.

The EWG is "once again scaring consumers about an extremely safe and healthy product that parents should be feeding their children more of for good health," said Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming, an industry group. The alliance has a website - www.safefruits - where people can learn more and use a "pesticide-residue calculator."

But are those legal limits sufficiently protective of public health and, more important, our children's health? Government agencies often are viewed as notoriously behind the curve and skewed toward industry.

The group notes a case in point: Most conventionally farmed apples grown in the United States are treated with the chemical diphenylamine to control storage scald, which causes brown spots on the skin.

The chemical was banned in Europe by the European Commission, not because it was proven unsafe, but because the industry hadn't provided sufficient information to prove it was safe.

EWG president Ken Cook has sent a letter to the EPA, asking for a review of the chemical.

Children are especially at risk. Unless you live near or work on a farm, or use pesticides at home, your child's diet is the dominant source of exposure, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In a 2012 policy statement in the journal Pediatrics, the group noted that children have "unique susceptibilities" to the potential toxicity of pesticides, partly because they are small and are still developing.

Pesticide exposure, the group said, is associated with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.

So if you want to reduce exposure, the EWG list should help. If it's too much bother or expense, by all means, eat those veggies anyway. Simply consuming these nutrition powerhouses trumps any concerns.

Either way, always wash produce with cold or warm tap water, and depending on the food, scrub with a brush.

Are Pesticides in Your Food?

EWG'S "Dirty Dozen"

  1. Apples

  2. Celery

  3. Cherry tomatoes

  4. Cucumbers

  5. Grapes

  6. Imported nectarines

  7. Peaches

  8. Potatoes

  9. Imported snap peas

  10. Spinach

  11. Strawberries

  12. Sweet bell peppers

EWG's "Clean Fifteen"

  1. Asparagus

  2. Avocados

  3. Cabbage

  4. Cantaloupe

  5. Cauliflower

  6. Eggplant

  7. Grapefruit

  8. Kiwi

  9. Mangoes

  10. Onions

  11. Papayas

  12. Pineapples

  13. Sweet corn

  14. Frozen sweet peas

  15. Sweet potatoes

SOURCE: Environmental Working Group, www.EWG.orgEndText

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