(Oct. 27) An activist group warning consumers not to eat certain conventionally grown fruits and vegetables because they contain pesticides is crying wolf, an industry leader says.

The Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group’s updated Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce online ranks 46 popular fruits and vegetables using U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration data.

Twelve conventionally grown commodities are so contaminated that consumers should instead buy organic versions of them, the activist group recommends.

But Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C., said the Environmental Working Group is misrepresenting the facts — again. Stenzel, who battled the group before, doesn’t disagree with its numbers, just its interpretation of them.

“It’s EWG’s interpretation of the statistics that’s all wrong,“ Stenzel said. “FDA looks at the exact same pesticide residue data and assures the public that these food products are well within safe levels. EWG misinterprets, misleads and exaggerates for its own political purpose.”

The Environmental Protection Agency also sets stringent standards for approval of pesticides, Stenzel added.

Many fruits and vegetables test positive for pesticides but don’t pose what the government considers a health risk. A 2000 USDA report found that 70% of fresh produce commodities contained pesticide residues. But only one in 500 had residues above USDA-tolerance levels.

And while the group recommends that consumers forego conventionally grown apples, peaches, raspberries and other commodities on its blacklist in favor of their organic versions, organics also are not immune from pesticides.

A 2002 study by the Consumers Union, Yonkers, N.Y., publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, and the Organic Materials Research Institute, Eugene, Ore., found that 23% of organically grown produce contains pesticide residue.

An official from a company that helped fund the Environmental Working Group’s study said the USDA’s tolerance-level standards are not infallible.

“We’re constantly getting more information, more science on the effects of pesticides,” said Nancy Hirshberg, vice president for natural resources at Stonyfield Farm, Londonderry, N.H., an organic yogurt maker.