Farmers' group takes aim at 'Dirty Dozen' produce list
By TIM HEARDEN
WATSONVILLE, Calif. - A farmers' advocacy group is claiming success in stifling media coverage of an environmental organization's "Dirty Dozen" list of conventionally grown produce.
The Alliance for Food and Farming derides as "misleading" the Environmental Working Group's annual list of what it calls the most pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables.
The alliance said media coverage of this year's list unveiled April 22 was "negligible." The group partly credits the USDA's most recent Pesticide Data Program Report, on which the "Dirty Dozen" list was based, for making it clear that residues do not pose a food safety risk.
"The USDA has repeatedly said levels of residue in its finding are of no concern to consumers and do not present a safety risk," AFF executive director Marilyn Dolan said. "The EWG has reinterpreted it to promote a message that sounds like some fruits and vegetables are dangerous and should only be purchased if you can get them in organic ... We believe and the USDA believes that is not correct."
The EWG's list is part of its Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Topping this year's list was apples, followed by peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes and hot peppers.
The group also issued a "Clean 15" list of fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide load. It included corn, onions, pineapples, avocados, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, papayas, mangoes, asparagus, eggplant, kiwi, grapefruit, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.
More consumers are choosing organic fruits and vegetables to avoid chemical residues, said Sonya Lunder, an EWG senior analyst.
"We disagree (with AFF) about the public health relevance of pesticides detected on fruits and vegetables," Lunder said. "We find that about 68 percent ... have measurable pesticide residues on them. We find dramatic differences in residues on crops, and we're calling that to attention."
Lunder said the EWG uses about a half-dozen factors to identify foods that are consistently high in pesticide residues, including whether produce tested positive for more than one pesticide.
She said the USDA's measurements are based on produce after it had been peeled and washed, and many consumers aren't as diligent about washing fruits and vegetables.
"I think we're very transparent in how we look at the data and how we process it," Lunder said.
The debate centers around the USDA's latest Pesticide Data Program summary, published in February, which examines results from 12,373 samples collected and analyzed in 2011. About one-third of the produce, eggs and milk tested were from California.
In most cases, the number of residue detections were minimal compared to the sample size and fell below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tolerance levels.
Dolan said the AFF has encouraged news reporters and others to read the USDA reports themselves rather than relying on interpretations.
"A surprising number of media people said" they hadn't read it, Dolan said. "What happens is they get a report from an activist group and print it. It sounds good and it's easy to do, but we found the USDA report was being overlooked.
"In a lot of ways, we're just really happy that the media is paying attention to real science and real information from government," she said. "It looks like they've come to the same conclusion we did - that maybe we shouldn't be using this information (from EWG) or should be looking at all sides of the issue."
AFF Safe Fruits and Veggies campaign: http://www.safefruitsandveggies.com/
EWG 2013 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
USDA Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=stelprdc5102692