I have a confession to make: I have, on a few very limited occasions and against my better judgment, bought organic produce because I thought it was better for my family. Shocking, I know. I just wrote a story about what a good job I think the EPA and the USDA do to help ensure our produce has safe, minuscule levels of pesticide residue. How could I be so hypocritical? The answer is fear in parenting. Like so many other parents, I was (marginally and with doubts in my mind) temporarily frightened by media reports that perhaps some produce contained dangerous levels of pesticides and we would be better off with organic. Where would I get that idea? From a list called the Dirty Dozen. Rest assured, though, I have regained my composure and I am back on the conventional produce horse. Worry not, it won’t happen again, because now I know more about how wrong the Dirty Dozen list is than I used to.
The Dirty Dozen is a list put together every year by a group called the Environmental Working Group. The EWG is a US-based environmental advocacy organization that takes on issues ranging from sunscreen to genetic engineering to cell phone towers and cosmetics. The EWG is well known for the Dirty Dozen list which uses publicly available data to rank produce according to levels of pesticide residue. The list has been expanded to include the top 15 “dirtiest” produce; those the EWG has determined have the most pesticide residue. The EWG recommends consumers buy organic options of these “most contaminated fruits and vegetables.” The group also puts together the Clean Fifteen, which is a list of fruits and vegetables that fall at the bottom of the EWG’s ranking system for pesticides, ones you can buy conventional without feeling badly about it.
As you might expect, this concept is popular among parents. We’re always trying to balance doing the very best thing for our kids with the impact to our bank accounts. Not everyone can afford organic, so it’s inviting to hear someone say: “hey, don’t sweat it, you don’t always have to buy organic! Just focus on these specific items.” That helps parents feel good. They can check the “doing the right thing” box and move on.
It’s not surprising many parents use this list – the media regurgitates the Dirty Dozen like a mother bird feeding hungry chicks. The EWG packages its message in tidy little soundbites that basically write the stories themselves. Everyone covers it: CBS News, CNN, Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, Forbes, Fox News, Shape, WebMD, PBS, even Oprah. I could go on and on, all you need to do is a simple Google search.
Seems legit, right? While I have heard the Dirty Dozen talked about in mom circles for years, even enough to convince me to throw a few extra dollars at the idea once or twice, I never actually looked at the EWG’s website to see where the data came from. I recently did a casual Facebook survey to see how much my mom-friends know. Of the 24 who responded from across the US, 83 percent had heard of the Dirty Dozen and 75 percent could name two items on the list. Conversely, only 21 percent knew who was behind the Dirty Dozen, and only 8 percent had an idea about how the list was put together.
So how is the list created? Turns out, not very scientifically. The EWG states on its website that it uses data available from the USDA and FDA to create six evenly-weighted metrics to rank produce. Not a single one takes the tolerance level (what the EPA deems a safe exposure level) of the pesticide into account; the metrics and methodology don’t consider whether the amount present is actually a problem or not. The EWG’s metrics are instead weighted to basically vilify the mere existence of pesticide residue without consideration of whether the amount present is within the safety limits set by the EPA.
Not only are these metrics pretty questionable, but the EWG doesn’t make the subset of data it uses available for the public to view. Without access to the specific data from the USDA and FDA that the EWG claims to be using, it is nearly impossible for anyone to verify or reproduce the EWG’s results. Not surprisingly, this also makes it difficult to refute or differently interpret the EWGs findings. Nowhere on its site does the EWG even link to the USDA or FDA’s websites. I think I figured out where the EWG gets the numbers, but how would you know for sure if it isn’t said? After looking over the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program reports, I’m still not certain how all six of those metrics are determined or how the ranking system is created. Now, I’m not a scientist, so maybe it’s easier for someone familiar with that data to figure it out. But when you ask scientists, the consensus is disagreement with the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list.
In 2011, the Journal of Toxicology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, published a study that concluded the EWG’s methodology does not follow any scientific procedures and does not back up their claim that you can avoid pesticides by eating organic varieties of the “most contaminated fruits and vegetables.” Steve Savage, a plant pathologist who has spent his career in agricultural technology, did an independent analysis of the data and concluded the EWG is misleading consumers. The Alliance for Food and Farming, a non-profit group made up of farmers and farm organizations, commissioned an expert panel of five scientists (one of whom has 22 years of experience at the EPA) to evaluate the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and those scientists concluded it is unscientific. Forbes contributor Henry I. Miller did an opinion piece on the EWG’s unscientific-ness, which I thought was great, but sadly it was an opinion piece, not a news article.
Does anyone else find it ironic that we, as consumers, demand that scientists back up their claims with data and peer-review before we even reluctantly (read the comments) consider them, yet moms seem convinced by what appears to be an unscientific, intentionally opaque analysis that isn’t peer-reviewed? Clearly, this gets me fired up.
So I reached out to Teresa Thorne at the Alliance for Food and Farming to talk to her about what the science really says. Her bottom line was that moms should not be afraid to feed their kids fruits and vegetables. “We don’t advocate for organic or conventional, whatever choice you make is the right one for your family when you’re choosing to eat fruits and vegetables,” she said. Thorne said the Alliance is concerned that the EWG is using fear and language that is making people hesitate to buy produce. “Moms deserve truthful, credible information. There are decades of research showing it’s safe; farmers are doing a very good job.”
Thorne also had questions about the EWG’s methodology and lack of information on its website. “In today’s world, when you are putting out a new report or study, why wouldn’t you reference the USDA data you use?” Thorne said. “Why don’t they link to the data? The answer is the EWG doesn’t want people to know what the USDA and EPA say. Because they say it’s safe.” The USDA just recently released the newest Pesticide Data Program results, again confirming that pesticide residues do not pose a safety threat. Thorne encourages consumers to read that report, but if they don’t want to read the whole report (and it’s long, trust me) at least look at the press release and look at the USDA’s “What Consumers Should Know” sheet about the report. “The EWG manipulate that data and turn it into something very negative, when the government report is very positive,” said Thorne.
Interestingly, let’s take a listen to what the mainstream media has reported on the recent USDA report saying our fruits and veggies are safe: … [insert sound of crickets chirping] … nada.
The EWG often argues that the EPA’s safety limits are too lax and if consumers want to be sure they’re safe they should eat organic. But Thorne brought up a good point that organic consumers might not think about. “The fact of the matter is that the laws and regulations are stringent and protective,” Thorne said. “Those laws and regulations aren’t just protecting consumers for conventional produce; they’re also for organic produce. Organic pesticides go through the same scientific process as conventional ones. It’s dangerous to damage that credibility unjustifiably. Doesn’t that undermine both?” That’s an interesting point. Especially since, as far as I know, the USDA doesn’t test organic produce for residues of approved organic pesticides.
I also reached out to the EWG for clarification on some of these issues: namely why it doesn’t link to the data, present the data on its website, or submit to peer-review? Also why doesn’t the methodology take tolerance into account, and what’s the EWG’s stance on organic pesticides? After some back and forth, I was told they won’t answer my questions until after they release the 2014 list later this week. (I get it; I used to work in PR.) So I’ll get back to you on that. I’m planning a follow-up article on the media coverage of this year’s Dirty Dozen and I will include the EWG’s answers to those questions.
We can anticipate that the EWG is going to, yet again, misconstrue the USDA’s positive report this week when it releases the 2014 Dirty Dozen list. The EWG will take that data and twist it around and try to convince you to buy organic options to help protect your family from “harmful pesticide residue”. Don’t fall for it. Don’t let the media feed you information and don’t let an activist group make decisions for you about what’s safe and what’s not. Use your Mom Sense, look into the science, and reach your own conclusions.