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Feds say you’ll be fine as long as you rinse those strawberries

Momma probably already told you to wash the strawberries. But did she say why?

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It’s that time year when advice from an environmental group goes up against messages from fruit and vegetable growers who produce, with the help of some pesticides, $60 billion in crops annually.

U.S farmers grow more than 350 types of fruit, vegetable, tree nut, flower, nursery and other horticultural crops. From these, the Washington, D.C -based Environmental Working Group (EWG) with annual revenues north of $7 million, has for the past couple decades annually come out with its Dirty Dozen list to warn consumers about what produce has the most pesticide residue.

But with increasing effectiveness, the produce lobby has gotten out ahead the annual Dirty Dozen release to point consumers to the original source data for the list, which is USDA’s Pesticide Data Program. It annually assures the public that “residues do not pose a safety concern.”

Strawberries top this year’s Dirty Dozen list, having come into the EWG’s sights because of multiple pesticides used during growing and residues from as many as 17 different pesticides showing up after harvest.

Strawberries toppled apples from the No.1 dirty slot this year, a move say EWG’s critics to replace one fruit popular with children with another to renew waning press attention to the Dirty Dozen list.

How much is too much?
The differences between the EWG and the produce industry all come down to how pesticide data is interpreted.

2016-Dirty-Dozen

For Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst for the environmental organization, it is “startling” to see the levels of “hazardous pesticides” on strawberries. She warns that even “small doses of toxic chemicals” can harm young children.

But the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), representing both organic and conventional growers, points to findings by the University of California’s Personal Chemical Exposure program that show a child could eat 1,508 serving of strawberries a day and still not have any effect from the pesticide levels, which are considered safe by the USDA.

The Dirty Dozen list has come in for its share of criticism for scaring people away from fruits and vegetables. AFF points to research showing that decreasing consumption of fruits and vegetables can damage health. Food and Chemical Toxicology, for example, found if half of all Americans increased the fruit and vegetable consumption by a single serving per day, 20,000 cancer cases could be prevented annually.

EWG agrees that eating fruits and vegetables is important to human health. It has, for some years, published its “Clean 15” recommendations in addition to its Dirty Dozen list. Avocados top the Clean 15 list this year.

Regulation abounds
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for regulating pesticide use on food and determining when it presents an unreasonable risk to human health. EPA sets maximum pesticide residue levels known as “tolerances.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also has a role in determining which pesticides, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides many be used on which fruit and vegetable crops.

Finally, USDA through the Pesticide Data Program annually tests about 11,000 fresh and processed products. It is that data sparks the disagreement between the produce industry and the Environmental Working Group.

Oh, as for what Momma told you, FDA agrees. To reduce or eliminate pesticide residues from fresh fruits and vegetables, wash with cold water and use a brush lightly when appropriate. For lettuce and cabbage, remove and toss outer leaves, also.

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