Why the 12 fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue are safe to eat
Each spring, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) out of the United States releases a list called the Dirty Dozen. Popular fruits and vegetables are ranked based on their levels of pesticide residues and presented as a ‘guide’ to consumers. The 12 crops with the highest amount of pesticide residues are labelled the Dirty Dozen, while the 15 with the lowest amount are called the Clean Fifteen.
The Dirty Dozen list leads to fear and confusion for consumers around fruit and vegetable consumption. The EWG itself notes the importance of consumers eating more fruits and vegetables and the benefit this can have for improved health, yet the report may have the impact of causing consumers to avoid some fruits and vegetables due to concerns about pesticide residues.
The reality is that Canadians can feel confident when buying and consuming fruits and vegetables no matter how they were grown. In an effort to share the facts, we’ve pulled together some of the top questions we hear about the Dirty Dozen and pesticide residues on food.
To determine this ranking, EWG uses sampling data obtained from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The majority of the data comes from the USDA Pesticide Detection Program (PDP) reports.
What the EWG does not include in their calculations is actual risk of exposure. On their website, the EWG discloses: “The Shopper’s Guide [Dirty Dozen] does not incorporate risk assessment into the calculations. All pesticides are weighted equally, and we do not factor in the levels deemed acceptable by the EPA.”
In other words, there is no consideration for the actual dose of the pesticide residue left on the food, nor the potential exposure to risk based on the amount of fruit or vegetable a person may consume. As an example, a child could eat 181 servings of strawberries in one day without any negative effect from pesticide residues, even if the strawberries have the highest allowable residue. However, eating that many strawberries may have other impacts on health.
What level of pesticides are on fruits and veggies listed in the Dirty Dozen?
In 2020, the Pesticide Data Program (PDP) analyzed 9,600 fruit and vegetable samples from across the United States. Despite what the EWG leads consumers to believe, more than 99 percent of the products sampled had residues below the tolerances (i.e. levels) set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The PDP report states that “residues found in agricultural products sampled are at levels that do not pose risk to consumers’ health and are safe according to EPA and FDA.”
What about Canadian data on pesticide residues?
The latest data shows that 99.9% of fresh fruits and vegetables in Canada (includes domestically grown and imported produce) test well below pesticide residue limits set by Health Canada and tested for by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Additionally, 89.3% of Canadian grown fruits and vegetables have no detectable residues of pesticides.
What levels of pesticides are allowed on foods?
When it comes to residues, Health Canada sets Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs). An MRL is the maximum amount of pesticide residue that could remain on a crop when the product is used according to the approved label directions. MRLs are set in parts per million (ppm), with many pesticides having a limit of 1 ppm or less. As a reference, 1 part per million is the equivalent of 1 minute in 2 years.
MRLs are typically set 100 times or more below levels that would have any impact on human health. For this reason, MRLs are not a measure of health and safety but are an indication that pesticides are being used as they are supposed to be by farmers.
It’s important to keep in mind that detection technology is now so sophisticated that it can detect trace amounts of pesticides in parts per billion (think a drop of water in an Olympic size pool).
How are pesticides regulated in Canada?
In Canada, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) regulates all pesticides. Canada has one of the most stringent regulatory systems in the world for pesticides. More than 300 scientists at the PMRA review new pesticide applications and routinely re-evaluate existing products.
The evaluation process used by the PMRA is science based and incredibly rigorous. It subjects pesticides to a comprehensive scientific review and risk assessment. This includes more than 200 separate studies for environmental and health impacts (with a focus on vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, children and seniors) before approving products for sale and use in Canada. Products are continually re-assessed to make sure they meet the latest scientific standards.
In Canada, only three in 10 adults eat enough fruits and vegetables, which we know reduces the risk of many chronic health conditions. We should all be focused on encouraging consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables rather than causing fear and confusion around fruit and vegetable consumption.
Pierre Petelle is president and CEO of CropLife Canada, representing Canadian plant science companies.