Finding an unwanted limelight for pesticide residues, apples are ranked at the top of the Dirty Dozen list of “worst offenders” released June 13 by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group.

In its seventh edition of the guide to pesticides on produce, the groups calls apples “the most contaminated produce,” jumping three spots from the 2010 list, replacing celery at the top. The group said U.S. Department of Agriculture tests show pesticide residues were on 98% of the more than 700 apple samples tested.

The Dirty Dozen — the EWG suggests consumers “buy these organic” — are (in order):

  • Apples;
  • Celery;
  • Strawberries;
  • Peaches;
  • Spinach;
  • Imported nectarines;
  • Imported grapes;
  • Sweet bell peppers;
  • Potatoes;
  • Domestic blueberries;
  • Lettuce; and
  • Kale/collard greens.

The Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 list — which the group says is the lowest in pesticides, are:

  • Onions;
  • Sweet corn;
  • Pineapples:
  • Avocados:
  • Asparagus;
  • sweet peas;
  • Mangoes;
  • Eggplant;
  • Domestic cantaloupe;
  • Kiwifruit;
  • Cabbage;
  • Watermelon;
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Grapefruit; and
  • Mushrooms.

“(The Environmental Protection Agency) sets the health standards government pesticide use based on state-of the-art science, and the vast majority of (apple) samples are well within the safety limits of EPA,” said Nancy Foster, president of the Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association. “From that standpoint, consumers can feel confident in the apples and produce they are eating.”

The recently released summary of the USDA Pesticide Data Program annual report (with results from samples tested in 2009) showed residues exceeding the tolerance in 0.3% of all food samples tested and residues with no established tolerance were found in 2.7% of the samples.

Foster said growers use crop protection products to prevent pest damage to apples, but the products have been approved by EPA.

In the big picture, Foster said the Dirty Dozen ranking doesn’t change the fact that the Surgeon General, medical groups and even the EWG say the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh not eating them.

Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said in a June 13 news release that the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list was an irresponsible publicity stunt disguised as science.

“While its authors admit the “health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure,” the Dirty Dozen list will almost certainly discourage many people from eating the recommended amounts of fresh produce and potentially diminish the nutrition and health of millions of Americans,” Stenzel said in the release.

He said the USDA Pesticide Data Program report, from which the Dirty Dozen is created, underscored the safety of fruits and vegetables.

“In its latest report, the USDA states the overall residues found on tested foods were “at levels below the tolerances established by EPA,” which are measured in parts-per-million and typically established with a 100-fold or greater safety margin,” Stenzel said in the release.

Sara Sciammacco, spokesperson for the Environmental Working Group, said that millions of consumers have relied on the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists.

“We don’t have specific numbers, but we have said millions of shoppers rely on the data and download it from our website,” she said.

Sciammacco said evidence of the lists’ influence includes the growth of the organic sector over the past decade.

“If you want to point out the popularity and influence that our list is having, more and more people are choosing to eat fruits and vegetables without pesticides on them.”