The Truth About the Dirty Dozen

— Written By Zack Taylor and last updated by
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In this week’s Extension News, I want to take a moment to address “The Dirty Dozen.”  No, I’m not talking about the movie released in the summer of 1967, I’m talking about the list of top 12 “dirty” fruit and vegetables released by the Environment Working Group. You may have seen this list circulating on social media or online news sites back in the spring.

If you are not familiar with the list, each spring the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, publishes a list of the 12 fruits and vegetables which they deem to be dirty. This means the EWG has determined these produce items have the highest levels of pesticide residues. This is concerning to farmers, who strive to produce the best quality food as they possibly can for their consumers. This list can scare consumers, and drive down sales of some of our areas most popular fruits and vegetables. In fact, almost all of the products on the list are commonly grown by producers right here in Lee County. Interestingly, the Environmental Working Group publishes another list in the fall of items they consider the best foods for to consume daily for your health. Many of the same fruits and vegetables on the dirty dozen make it on this list too. So, what does it really mean when you see a product on the dirty dozen, and should you be worried about eating that product?

Another report is released each spring concerning pesticide levels on food. That report is released by the US Department of Agriculture, and it list the findings of routine testing that is done all across the country to ensure our produce is safe. It generally gets very little attention from news and social media sources, because year after year the report confirms that our fruits and vegetables are safe. That just doesn’t seem to make for good news. In fact, last year the report found that over 99 percent of test came back showing pesticide residue levels on food that met or exceeded safety standards. The less than 1 percent which were not determined safe, never entered the food supply chain. The report also found what many of us in the agriculture industry already knew, that farmers were incorporating safer products and practices into their pest management strategies, in order to produce safer food.

Still, that may be concerning to some. After all, the US Department of Agriculture is still admitting that there is some level of pesticides on our food. Let’s take a look at what those threshold levels really mean. Threshold number are calculated by taking the toxicity of a pesticide, and looking at possible exposure to that pesticide that a person may have. Thresholds ensure that if pesticide residues are present, they are at levels low enough that they could not possibly cause harm to a consumer. That means, that just because a pesticide can be detected on a fruit or vegetable, that does not mean it is not safe to eat. With modern detection levels, we can now detect residues at levels so low, methods used just a few years ago would not have detected that pesticide at all. For an example of how safe these thresholds are, we can look back at the highest pesticide levels ever detected on a piece of produce, and determine how many servings it would take before a noticeable effect might occur to a child eating that produce. For strawberries, which are often touted as the dirtiest of the dirty dozen, a child would need to eat 1,508 servings of strawberries in a single day! Apples, another dirty dozen item, would take 154 servings, peaches, 176 servings, nectarines, 338 servings, cherries, 669 servings, bell peppers, 1,111 servings, spinach, 2,564 servings, and celery a whopping 98,413 servings! Cherry tomatoes, grapes, tomatoes, and cucumbers round out the dozen, all with similar serving numbers amounts before reaching levels of concern. Even if you think you may somehow be able to eat that many servings of a product in one day, remember that doesn’t take into account the fact that almost all residues are removed by simply washing produce before eating it, which you should always do.

The dirty dozen has been repeatedly deemed inaccurate by scientist, yet, every year it is spread far and wide on the internet. This hurts farmers everywhere, including the ones right here in our own backyard. They work hard everyday to produce the safest possible product at the highest quality for you and your family. Since it is impossible to test all fruits and vegetables being sold, thresholds are also maintained by labelling pesticides. Every pesticide has a label, whether it is used by a farmer, or in your backyard. Following this label ensures that when you have a pest problem in your own back yard, you have the option of using a pesticide to treat that pest. When you follow the label and use a pesticide at the proper timing and rate, you ensure that the pest can be managed, and you will not have harmful residues on your fresh garden produce. If you are interested in learning more about labels and pesticide safety, register for my class, Understanding Pesticide Labels, which will be offered August 19, at 9:00 a.m. Classes like these are offered routinely to farmers, who must attend classes to keep their required pesticide applicators license. Attendance by anyone who uses pesticides, licensed or not, is a good idea as improper pesticide use can be dangerous. The class is free and pesticide 2 hours of credits will be offered to individuals with an applicator license. Call 919-775-5624 to for details and to register.

Zack Taylor is the Agriculture Agent – Field Crops and Livestock, and Pesticide Coordinator for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.