How Dirty is the Dirty Dozen?

EWG protest photo-1I 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 NewsCNNHuffington PostGood HousekeepingForbesFox NewsShapeWebMDPBS, 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.



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6 Responses to How Dirty is the Dirty Dozen?

  1. Steve

    EWG uses a very convenient (and well-known) ploy. When you rank order any set of data, no matter the methodology, there will be data elements at the top and at the bottom of the ranking. There will always be a dozen “worst” and a dozen “best”, year after year, guaranteeing a news story. This is true even if the actual values improve a lot across the board over the years, there will perpetually be twelve worst. The same is true for new cars, places to retire, or food processors. Consumer Reports has built a magazine following on this principle!

  2. Pingback: Science is hard | It's Mom Sense

  3. Herbert Stokes

    I am not a scientist. I am a chef and have been for over 25 years. I work with all kinds of food in huge amounts every day as part of what I do. I have no doubt in my mind that I have more actual hands on experience with food of all kinds than most people who blog about food, most scientists who test food and most moms. What I have discovered is that there is absolutely zero difference in the quality between identical items of conventional and organic produce.

    This being the case, why would I choose a food that has ANY amount of glyphosate on it at all when I have an item sitting right next to it that contains none? My goal is to get the amount of “stuff” on my food as close to zero as I can. I get produce in from local farms and organic companies as well as conventional suppliers and I have found a lot more interest in the quality of their own product and service from the locals and smaller companies. That’s what matters to me. Big companies are in it for the volume they can sell to maximize profits. They have shown that they will do and say pretty much anything to achieve that goal.

    The big Ag companies and eco-warriors can point their fingers back and forth as much as they want but what I’ve found I get a better service to quality ratio from the little guy. I also get a better selection from the locals and organic growers. They care more about what kinds of food they grow, not just focusing on the big selling items. Until the big companies can match that, you can spout all day long about how safe your chemicals are compared to the other companies chemicals and it won’t change the fact the big guys don’t do the kind of business I care to support. At the end of the day, apples are apples. Asparagus is asparagus. I’ll give my money to the gentleman down the road who’s selling me food from the same land his grandfather used to plant.

    • Herbert Stokes

      P.S. My “mom sense” tells me that when a container of any product is labeled as being toxic to ingest, I want to keep the amount I ingest off the food it has been put on as close to zero as I can, regardless of what an agency has deemed as being “safe.” I would challenge any chemical company executive to drink a glass of water with 6 drops of their pesticide in it because someone else has said that that level is acceptable.

    • Sara

      Herbert, I don’t disagree with you on the local topic. In fact, I also support local growers as frequently as possible, perhaps for different reasons, but the end result is the same. I support local growers because I’m interested in reducing the amount of resources used to transport food. I’m willing to pay a little more for food that has been grown close to me so we don’t burn up fossil fuels shipping it in from another country, or even from across the country.

      Here’s where perhaps we come at the discussion from different angles – it seems like you’re concerned with presence of pesticides of any kind on your food, and I understand that concern. I may not have as much hands-on experience with food as you do, but while you’re feeding paying customers, I’m feeding the people I love most: my family. I’m sure you also have a family, so you can relate to that. I don’t think you need to create 500 meals a day to appreciate a concern for what’s in your food – so I feel like I understand your concern. The point of this post, and many others I’ve written, is to make a distinction between presence of a thing and danger from a thing. Simply because there is presence of pesticide residue is not synonymous with increased risk. But, I understand your argument that you want to get as close to zero presence on your food as you can. The problem is, eating organic produce or locally grown produce or even produce from the smallest grower you can find doesn’t always get you to the lowest amount of “stuff” as you can. Organic growers also use organic pesticides. Not always, just like conventional growers don’t always use synthetic pesticides. In fact, many conventional growers also use organic pesticides, but that’s another conversation. The point I’m trying to make is that you seem to think that only large growers use pesticides, and that’s not true. If you want to support local growers, do it, but don’t do it because you think small local growers do it better than large growers. I’ve personally talked to lots of large-scale and small-scale growers, and they all have great concern for their products, customers, and the land on which they raise food – because they’re also feeding that food to their families and living on that land. So I disagree that they’re in it just for the money. Every farmer I’ve ever talked to tells me that farming is not a career, it’s a lifestyle. You don’t do it because it’s lucrative, you do it because you love it.

      Now, onto your last point: pesticides are not beverages. No one should drink them, in the same way that I wouldn’t encourage you to drink diluted dish soap, even though it’s safe to consume in the small residue that is no doubt present on your dishes. Like I said, presence of a thing is not equivalent to danger. Organic pesticides also come in containers labeled as being dangerous to ingest. I have a bottle in my garage, in fact, that I use on my garden to treat black spot that explicitly says to wear a mask when applying and if you inhale it and you’re still conscious, call a doctor. I wouldn’t drink that, either. Check out the label for BioNeem if you don’t believe me: It also says to call poison control if ingested.

      Hope that helps.

      • Herbert Stokes

        I understand about organic pesticides. When I made the comment about “how safe your chemicals are compared to the other companies chemicals ” I meant big companies compared to organic companies. Sorry for the clumsy phrasing. They both claim their chemicals are safer but poison is poison. I even heard one company say that synthetic pesticides are safer than organic ones simply because synthetics are regulated more.

        As for the residue issue, I will change my wording. I challenge any company official, synthetic or organic, to fill a glass that has pesticide residue in it with water and take a big old swig. I’m going to go with my gut feeling that you would have a lot of passers. My point, I suppose, is that I buy a LOT of food that comes from places that use no pesticides at all. I’ve seen their operations. Their crops are beautiful, lush and bountiful without a drop of residue on the entire acreage. I question not only the pesticides but the need for them. One farm uses beneficial insects to control the unwanted ones. They all use natural methods of control, most of which involve no chemicals. Healthy soil is one of the biggest concerns they have, but a lot of standard farms just use more chemical fertilizers to make up for lack of healthy farming practices. Here is a site that lists a lot of methods common to the methods used a hundred years ago before farmers got a little lazy and just started spraying what the chem companies told them to. I know many of the methods listed wouldn’t be effective on large scale farms, but the downside of BigAg is another discussion entirely.

        If the pesticides are harmful to ingest while in liquid form, why are they safe to ingest if you simply evaporate the water from them as is the case with residues? Cyanide powder is just as deadly as liquid cyanide. I understand that the amount of chemical in the residue is a lot less than actually drinking right out of the carton, but as in the example you gave about dish soap residue, I would rather eat off a plate that never had a residue on it to begin with. Its not the immediate poisoning I’m concerned about, its the long term build up in my body from consuming those pesticide residues. If the CDC feels the need to keep track of levels of buildup in the human body, I feel that justifies the need to be concerned about it and the companies making the chemicals sure aren’t going to tell us anything truthfully that will hurt their bottom line.

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