Move over celery. This year, apples take over the top spot on the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) "Dirty Dozen" list as the most pesticide-laden produce. Apples jumped three spots from last year's list and for good reason: According to the USDA, pesticides appeared on 98 percent of the more than 700 apple samples tested.

ApplesThe EWG yesterday released its seventh edition of the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, a resource that ranks pesticide contamination for about 50 popular fruits and vegetables and recommends which produce is best to buy organic. Apples typically have occupied the top three spots on the Dirty Dozen list.

"Apples grown conventionally often have multiple pesticide residues due to the use of pesticides during the growing phase as well as post harvest, when apples are sprayed with another fungicide that allows them to stay in cold storage facilities for months," said Sara Sciammacco, press secretary for EWG. "Only five pesticides that were detected on apples were unapproved in 2009," she added, noting the unapproved percentage would be just under 5 percent.

Dirty Dozen (highest in pesticides)

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Strawberries
  4. Peaches
  5. Spinach
  6. Imported nectarines
  7. Imported grapes
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Potatoes
  10. Domestic blueberries
  11. Lettuce
  12. Kale/collard greens

 

Unapproved or approved, pesticide use isn't just concerning for consumers. "In the organic marketplace everybody is concerned about pesticide exposure," said Addie Pobst, import coordinator and food safety officer for organic produce distributor CF Fresh. "Organic is not a residue-free claim because the sad fact is our world is filled with chemicals and we cannot guarantee that there will not be a particular residue on a particular fruit. What we can guarantee is that we do not apply any of these synthetic ingredients." Pobst thinks that the updated Dirty Dozen may prompt consumers to start buying organic apples over conventional.

EWG analysts examine testing data by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration from 2000 to 2009 to come up with the latest Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists. The USDA began testing produce in the '90s and currently tests about 20 different foods each year. EWG ranks produce by six equal factors, and produce is usually washed and peeled before testing.

The cilantro-parsley confusion

USDA recently tested cilantro for the first time, and the herb made a big entrance with the highest percentage of unapproved pesticides recorded on any item in the guide since EWG began tracking data in 1995. Thirty-three chemicals were present on 44 percent of cilantro samples. A USDA report stated that a number of these chemicals were approved for use in parsley, and it appears that cilantro growers were confused.

"If you see those pesticide labels, what you can and can't use them for, they're really quite detailed," said Pobst. "It's a lot of small print. As many growers as there are doing it correctly, there are probably some not getting it right." But it's hard to believe that a cilantro grower could confuse the plant with parsley, she added. "And anyway, as a consumer, why is it OK to put it on parsley if it's not OK to put on cilantro?"

In a recent NewHope360 blog on the topic, Susan Esrey, senior editor for Delicious Living said, "It's unsavory enough to ponder all the pesticides sprayed on U.S. food crops that the EPA has approved as 'safe' without worrying that producers may be ignoring what rules are in place."

USDA maintains that "there appears to be confustion whether the uses registered for parsley apply to cilantro; this has been communicated to EPA and FDA."

'Safe' use of pesticides?

It's not a mystery that pesticides are harmful for health. The problem lies in exactly how much damage they can cause. "Pesticides are toxic," said Sonya Lunder, EWG's senior analyst. "They are designed to kill things and most are not good for you. The question is, how bad are they?"

International and domestic government agencies have linked pesticides to nervous system toxicity, cancer, hormone system disruption and IQ deficits among children, according to the EWG. Some pesticides wash off in the rain; others can make the whole plant toxic.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets tolerance levels (maximum legally permissible levels) for pesticide levels in food.In order to use a pesticide, it must be registered for use with the EPA. A search query on apples performed today in the International Maximum Residue Level (MRL) Database revealed 112 pesticides with permanently established EPA tolerances. That's 112 pesticides approved for use on apples alone.

"Most of the pesticide residue amounts found on the tested produce were below the tolerance levels set by the federal government," said Sciammacco. "However, it only means the pesticide residue levels are within legal limits. It does not mean they are safe."

To reduce pesticide intake, EWG recommends choosing five servings of fruits and vegetables a day from the Clean 15 list. In doing so, the group says consumers will lower the volume and type of pesticides consumed by 92 percent.

Clean 15 (lowest in pesticides)

  1. Onions
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Avocado
  5. Asparagus
  6. Sweet peas
  7. Mangoes
  8. Eggplant
  9. Domestic cantaloupe
  10. Kiwi
  11. Cabbage
  12. Watermelon
  13. Sweet potatoes
  14. Grapefruit
  15. Mushrooms