Tuesday, March 28, 2023
Do You Really Need To Worry About Pesticide Residues On Fruits and Vegetables?
Forbes on 3/23/23) Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet providing vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, dietary fiber and other benefits. They can also be quite delicious. Nutrition experts agree that many Americans should eat more of these foods, but that can be challenging for those with a busy lifestyle. But another reason is consumers hesitate to buy produce items that they’ve been told are risky because of pesticide residues. The main way they get that idea is through something called the “Dirty Dozen List” which is published each year by the Environmental Working Group (EWGEWG) – an organization which gets funding from several large organic food companies. The 2023 list is expected soon. It purports to advise consumers about which specific foods are most important to buy as Organic to avoid these pesticide residues. This fear-based message is completely misleading and irresponsible. There are several reasons why this list has a negative effect on society. The first is it represents an egregious misinterpretation of an extensive and transparent public data set called the USDA Pesticide Data Program or PDP. The EWG claims that their list is based on the PDP data, but in fact what the data shows is these foods are safe and “clean” and should be enjoyed with confidence. That conclusion is clearly expressed in the USDA’s public summary and confirmed by the EPA and FDA. The second issue is the messaging tends to discourage many people from consuming healthy amounts of fruits and vegetables. That is particularly true for those on limited incomes. We do not have a two-tiered food system that requires us to pay a price premium for safety, and the USDA makes it clear that it’s Organic certification is not about safety. The third reason that the Dirty Dozen List is so corrosive it undermines public confidence in the EPA regulatory process for pesticides as if nothing has changed in the more than 50 years since that agency was established. The fourth problem is the Dirty Dozen List denigrates the farmers who actually do a great job of producing these crops and protecting them from pest damage and food loss while still complying with the EPA’s requirements for how to do that safely (e.g. what rates can be used and how close to harvest). What is the PDP and what does it really tell us? Each year the USDA and its 10 state-level partner agencies go out and collect more than ten thousand food samples from commercial channels within the US food system. For the 2021 study 21 commodities were included (Fresh and frozen Blueberries, Broccoli, Cantaloupe, Cauliflower, Carrots, Celery, Eggplant, Sweet Bell Peppers, Tangerines, Grape Juice, Green Beans, fresh and frozen Peaches, Plums, Green Beans, Watermelon, Summer Squash, Winter Squash, Butter, and Corn for Grain). The samples are taken to the USDA’s national lab or to one of 7 state laboratories throughout the US. There they are prepared the way they would normally be at the household level (washing, peeling etc), and then analyzed using very sensitive technologies that can accurately measure the amounts of more than 300 different pesticides and pesticide metabolites. For 2021 (the 31st year of the PDP) there were 10,127 samples and a total of 27,541 residue detections. For their Dirty Dozen List, the EWG essentially treats all of those detections as equally problematic. To do that truly represents “data abuse.” To understand the actual significance of any given detection one has to consider three details which are quite transparently available through the USDA-PDP dataset download site. 1. What chemical was detected? Individual crop protection chemicals (whether natural or synthetic) differ dramatically in terms of their toxicity profile. Very few modern pesticides are highly toxic to animals or humans. Many work by inhibiting specific enzymes that occur in pests but are not even present in animals. Thus these typically end up being classified by the EPA as category III - “slightly toxic,” or category IV – “essentially non-toxic.” 2. How much of the chemical was present? Since the time of the ancient Greeks is has been understood that “the dose makes the poison.” Modern chemical testing methods can detect extremely small doses – that does not mean that those represent something dangerous or “dirty.”