Nearly two-thirds of the 3,015 produce samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2013 contained pesticide residues – a surprising finding in the face of soaring consumer demand for food without agricultural chemicals.
EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce calculates that USDA tests found a total 165 different pesticides on thousands of fruit and vegetables samples examined in 2013. The USDA findings indicate that the conventional fruit and produce industries are ignoring a striking market trend: American consumers are voting with their pocketbooks for produce with less pesticide. USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that the organically produced food sector, though just 4 percent of all U.S. food sales, has enjoyed double-digit growth in recent years. The trend is particularly strong for sales of organic fruits and vegetables, which account for the lion’s share of all organic food sales: USDA economists reported that organic produce sales spiked from $5.4 billion in 2005 to an estimated $15 billion last year and increased by 11 percent between 2013 and 2014.
EWG singles out produce with the highest pesticide loads for its Dirty Dozen™ list. This year, it is comprised of apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes.
Each of these foods tested positive a number of different pesticide residues and showed higher concentrations of pesticides than other produce items.
- 99 percent of apple samples, 98 percent of peaches, and 97 percent of nectarines tested positive for at least one pesticide residue.
- The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce.
- A single grape sample and a sweet bell pepper sample contained 15 pesticides.
- Single samples of cherry tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, imported snap peas and strawberries showed 13 different pesticides apiece.
EWG’s Clean Fifteen™ list of produce least likely to hold pesticide residues consists of avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes. Relatively few pesticides were detected on these foods, and tests found low total concentrations of pesticides on them.
- Avocados were the cleanest: only 1 percent of avocado samples showed any detectable pesticides.
- Some 89 percent of pineapples, 82 percent of kiwi, 80 percent of papayas, 88 percent of mango and 61 percent of cantaloupe had no residues.
- No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen™ tested positive for more than 4 types of pesticides.
- Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen™ vegetables. Only 5.5 percent of Clean Fifteen samples had two or more pesticides.
Pesticides in baby food
The USDA’s most recent pesticide monitoring data included hundreds of samples of applesauce, carrots, peaches and peas packaged as baby food (USDA 2014a, USDA2014b). Because cooking reduces levels of pesticides and baby food is cooked before packaging, it tends to contain fewer pesticide residues than comparable raw produce.
The European Commission has set an across-the-board limit of no more than 0.01 parts per million of any pesticide in baby food, assuming that infants are more vulnerable than adults and older children damage by to harmful chemicals (European Commission 2006). Some samples of American baby food, particularly applesauce and peaches in baby food tested in 2012 and green beans tested in previous years, exceed the European limit. In contrast to the EU’s position, the U.S. has no special rules for pesticide residues in baby food.
The USDA detected 10 different pesticides on at least five percent of 777 samples of peach baby food sold in the U.S (USDA 2014a). Nearly a third of the peach baby food samples would violate the European guideline for pesticides in baby food because they contain one or several pesticides at concentrations of 0.01 part per million or higher.
The USDA tested 379 baby food applesauce samples for five pesticides (USDA 2014b). Some 23 percent of the samples contained acetamiprid, a neonicotinoid pesticide that European regulators singled out for additional toxicity testing because it might disrupt the developing nervous system (EFSA 2013). Another 10 percent of the samples contained carbendiazim, a fungicide.
The USDA found six pesticides in apple juice, a staple of many children’s diets (USDA 2014b). About 17 percent of the apple juice samples contained diphenylamine, a pesticide banned in Europe in 2012. Grape juice samples tested positive for six pesticides, most common was carbaryl, a potent insecticide not allowed in Europe but found in about 25 percent of the 176 U.S. grape juices tested (USDA 2014b). USDA tests have not detected significant pesticide residues on carrots and peas packaged as baby food.
How to Avoid Pesticides in Food
Make good choices in the supermarket. People who eat organic produce eat fewer pesticides.
A study by Cynthia Curl of the University of Washington published February 5, found that people who report they “often or always” buy organic produce had significantly less organophosphate insecticides in their urine samples, even though they reported eating 70 percent more servings of fruits and vegetables per day than adults reporting they “rarely or never” purchase organic produce (Curl 2015). Several long-term observational studies have indicated that organophosphate insecticides may impair children’s brain development.
In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued an important report that said that children have “unique susceptibilities to [pesticide residues’] potential toxicity.” The pediatricians’ organization cited research that linked pesticide exposures in early life and “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.” It advised its members to urge parents to consult “reliable resources that provide information on the relative pesticide content of various fruits and vegetables.” One key resource, it said, was EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce (AAP 2012).