The Environmental Working Group is irresponsibly bending facts and confusing consumers with its “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables that the organization claims have unusually high pesticide levels, produce industry officials say.

Apples, lettuce, peaches and potatoes rank among fruits and vegetables that contain as many as 13 different pesticides per serving by the time they reach the retail level, the group says, citing nearly 96,000 test samples from U.S. agriculture and food regulators.

The list was the basis for a two-part series on CNN,  June 2-3, featuring video of Dr. Sanjay Gupta strolling through the fresh produce section of a grocery store.

Produce trade groups, pointing to U.S. Department of Agriculture studies, say almost all fresh fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S. have no detectable pesticide residues.

The Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen:

  • Celery
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Domestic blueberries
  • Nectarines
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Spinach, kale and collard greens
  • Cherries
  • Potatoes
  • Imported grapes
  • Lettuce

Growers follow government regulations on pesticide use and produce food that’s “deemed to be safe by a considerable margin,” said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“It is irresponsible for the Environmental Working Group to bend these facts to suit their personal cause, confusing consumers in the process,” Gilmer said.

According to a USDA’s Pesticide Data Program report in 2008, 98% of fresh fruits and vegetables tested had no detectable residues, Gilmer said. For the remaining 2%, the vast majority of the detections were well below established tolerances and/or action levels.

Some government studies have suggested a link between pesticide exposure and health problems such as cancer and nervous system disorders.

Richard Wiles, an Environmental Working Group spokesman, said the organization still encourages eating fresh fruit and vegetables. Consumers can reduce exposure to pesticides by buying organic versions of items on the list, he said.

“Pesticides are toxic by design, or they wouldn’t work,” Wiles said. “There’s plenty of evidence that pesticides present legitimate health risks,” he said.

Based in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit group researches government documents with the mission to “protect public health and the environment,” according to the organization’s Web site.

Fruits and vegetables on the list are believed to be most susceptible because they have soft skin that tends to absorb more pesticides, the group said.

Other items on the list include celery, cherries, domestic blueberries, imported grapes, nectarines, spinach, kale and collard greens, strawberries and sweet bell peppers.

The group also compiled a “clean 15” list of non-organic fruits and vegetables that it says contain little or no pesticides, including avocados, cabbage, grapefruit and onions.