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The Dirty Dozen Dances Around the Data

There is an arrogance among the affluent. That’s how one anti-hunger activist framed it in a recent conversation about the demonization of certain foods. His contention, backed by research, is that when those who can afford niche products show reckless disregard in criticizing common foods, it leads to food fears and sometimes lower nutritional balance for those on a budget.

The widely reported Dirty Dozen list, issued annually by an environmental advocacy group, labels 12 commodities as the “dirty dozen” based on residue findings.

Media are quick to sound the alarm with headlines like the one posted recently by a Fox News affiliate, “Kale is now one of the most contaminated vegetables.” People.com describes “the most pesticide-covered produce items at the supermarket.”

Is it “Dirty” or Not?

Report authors quoted in the article expressed surprise that kale “had so many pesticides on it” (landing at #3 on the list) and recommended “choosing organic may be a better option.” It isn’t until the very end of the article that the report authors acknowledge “…the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.”

Wait? What? Are the 12 commodities “dirty” or is the risk low? It hardly seems consistent to contend both.

The final quote above sheds light on the science-based reality, according to a study in the Journal of Toxicology posted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It addressed the advocacy group’s report head-on a few years ago, analyzing the report’s methods and findings. Here is our CliffsNotes version: the Dirty Dozen report analyzes residue findings from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program but leaves out the fact that not one single sample was found to have unsafe residue levels. Not one.

So, what does that mean? Our government – and governments around the world – determine risk levels for an array of products. In the case of the samples referenced in the Dirty Dozen report, virtually all – 119 of 120 samples – are at 99 percent below the level of concern, and 1 sample is at 98 percent below the level of concern.

It’s About Real People and Important Choices

This reality certainly paints a different picture from the notion of “dirty” produce. The study posted by NIH also concludes that substituting organic forms of the 12 commodities for conventional forms does not result in increased safety.

This is not about debating the science. This is about real people who are making ends meet on a defined budget avoiding safe, healthy and important sources of nutrition because of a false narrative that fresh, fruits and vegetables, particularly those conventionally produced, are dangerous.

Should produce be washed? Absolutely. Is it dangerous? Not even close, according to standards set by governments in our country and many others. Is it okay to choose organics? Of course. CFI celebrates consumer choice. We also celebrate honesty.

For the affluent, the choice is simply which section of the supermarket to visit, but for those who can’t afford organics, the implication is that they must choose between “dirty” foods and foregoing fresh produce. That’s unconscionable.

If there is a silver lining, it may be that some media are more measured today than when the report was first issued years ago. CFI applauds those who resist the easy headline, instead digging in to balance their stories. In fact, this presents a great opportunity for food producers, researchers and influencers to applaud balance when they see it and call-out bias. Accountability can be a great motivator.

Terri Moore
The Center for Food Integrity