When Fear Wins: Fallout From the “Dirty Dozen” List

  • Published on October 12th, 2010


Experts in Nutrition and Public Health agree that a healthy diet should include lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.  These foods have multiple health benefits because they provide dietary fiber, trace minerals, vitamins, anti-oxidants, and a wide variety of compounds that enhance vein health, reduce cancer risk, and bind dangerous toxins (just to name a few).  It is also widely recognized that Americans, on the whole, eat far less fresh produce than would be ideal.  In fact, we would need 13 million more acres of fruit and vegetable production in the US to even meet the RDA (the amount  recommended by the USDA)  So the last thing we need is anything that discourages people from consuming these healthy foods.  Unfortunately, there is an organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that has been quite successful at getting consumers to avoid eating more fresh produce.

The Anatomy of a Fear Campaign

The EWG discourages people from buying fresh produce by scaring them about “pesticide residues” that might be on those crops.  Each year this group publishes a “Dirty Dozen” list which purports to tell which particular fruits and vegetables have the most pesticide residues and which should be avoided from their point of view.  As we will see in a moment, their ‘analysis’ has no scientific basis. But as is often the case, facts and reason can do little to diminish the persuasive power of fear.

Fear Works

A recent consumer poll by the highly reputable Hartman group reveals that the “Dirty Dozen List” and related efforts have been quite effective at convincing significant numbers of people to limit their purchases of fresh produce.  Between 2008 and 2010, the number of US consumers reporting that they don’t buy more produce because of pesticide concerns is up from 18% to 29%.  That is an increase of 3.1 million people in two years who are limiting their produce consumption.  That means that there are now over 55 million Americans whose produce purchasing decisions are influenced by this fear (who knows how many family members are effected). If you believe the experts on nutrition and public health, what the EWG has managed to do is to exacerbate a public health “time bomb” for the future.  “Fear” is winning, and more people are limiting the enjoyment and health potential that could come from eating more fresh produce.

The Irony

What is particularly ironic about this situation is that the USDA document that the EWG uses each year to make its “Dirty Dozen” list actually documents the exact opposite of what EWG claims.  The USDA collects thousands of samples of fresh produce from stores around the country and analyzes them for pesticide residues.  What the data shows is that with extremely rare exceptions, the residues are well below the very conservative safety thresholds that have been set through careful risk analysis by the EPA.  The levels are tiny compared any level of concern. Similar surveys from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation show the same thing.   A rational, scientific take from the data is that fresh produce is extremely safe to eat from a pesticide residue point of view.  To say otherwise, the EWG simply ignores decades of advances in the understanding of toxicology to fall-back to a, “you just don’t know what effects these residues might have…” point of view.

An organization representing farmers commissioned a critique of the “methodology” behind the Dirty Dozen list by qualified toxicologists and nutritionists.  The EWG actually tried to rally support in the Organic industry to block the funding for that effort.  Fortunately, many key organizations within the “Organic” community were unwilling to throw their support behind this effort to suppress criticism of the EWG analysis.

EWG Has Lots of Help Promoting This Fear

It is far easier to scare people than it is to inform them, and the EWG is winning here because they have a lot of help.  Much of the Press, and the vast number of self-declared “experts” on healthy eating, take what should be an obscure and discredited document (The Dirty Dozen List…) and uncritically disseminate its misleading and destructive message.  It fits the “pesticides are bad” preconception that is so widespread in a society where only a tiny proportion of the population grows all the food for the rest – a tiny proportion that understands that pests are real and that pesticides have gotten far safer than the 50+ year-old image of them that most people imagine.

What EWG says (aided by their many willing mouthpieces) fits the erroneous belief that most people have that there is an alternative to pesticides called “Organic.”  In fact, Organic growers also use pesticides,  and they are not all as safe as the ones used by conventional growers. Actually a large proportion of today’s pesticides are less toxic to mammals than table salt.  But there I go, trying to bring reason and real information into the mix.

What EWG and most of their supporting voices advocate is that consumers should buy the Organic options, particularly for the crops on the “List.”  Of course the Organic options come at a price premium.  Just avoiding produce becomes an easier decision for the unnecessarily alarmed consumer without a lot of extra disposable income.

So fear wins.  Fewer Americans eat a healthy diet. The EWG, those who support them, and those who repeat their distortions, all bear the responsibility for this trend.

You are welcome to comment on this site or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

Image of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting,  ”The Scream” from oddsock.

About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)


  • You’ve got to be kidding. I don’t think people are not eating veggies because of fear – I think they are either buying organic (which you don’t even talk about) or raising their own. And I’d love to see your comment about raising your own!

    • Some are buying organic, but more are not and possibly feeling guilty about that. Much of the organic marketing machine focuses on the pesticide issue when in fact organic produce is also treated with plenty of pesticides – some of which are not so nice (copper compounds, lime sulfur, elemental sulfur…). There is not residue testing done for these, buy the way.

      I would think it would be great if more people grew their own produce. Its a great hobby, can give you delicious food, and gives some people a needed education about the reality of pests. I have been gardening everywhere I’ve lived for nearly 40 years, but I also still enjoy lots of excellent produce I can buy in stores. However, I’m spoiled in that I’m still harvesting tomatoes, lettuce, brussels sprouts, beet green, kale, snowpeas, lemons, snap peas and green beans in January because I live near San Diego. Most people don’t have that sort of opportunity. Of course, without any real winter, there are more pest issues here than when I gardened in Colorado, Delaware or even Northern California

  • Mark. I don’t know about that exact choice but the modest gains in per capita fresh produce consumption that were seen in the 80s and 90s have stalled or even backtracked in this century. I do suspect that the fear mongering plays a role

  • Chris,
    Yes, too many are missing out. The 56 million number does not even include all the family members who don’t get much produce because the food decision-maker has been frightened into not buying it.

  • This is an excellent commentary, Steve! Too many Americans are missing the opportunity to eat delicious, healthy fruits and vegetables by paying attention to EWG’s list. Thank you.

    • I appreciate your article. There are a few points you are making in your article. That pesticides are not as prevalent or as dangerous in our fruits and vegetables as some people say. That pesticide worries are contrived fear mongering. And that people are going to make bad food choices to avoid pesticides. I really do not know what to believe, however, on the last point you are making, do you really believe someone is going to go for a doughnut, for example, over an apple because of possible
      pesticide contamination ? I really don’t think this is accurate.

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