Not So Peachy Advice

Recently featured on Good Morning America, the Environmental Working Group identified a “dirty dozen” list for the most contaminated produce that includes: peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, grapes, carrots, and pears. Eat fewer of these and you will live longer, they suggest.

The EWG’s suggestion is seriously wrongheaded. First, there is a considerable body of evidence showing that consuming relatively large amounts of fruits and vegetables has tremendous public health benefits. Second, there is scant evidence that the traces of pesticides found on these products poses any health problem whatsoever.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health explain that eating lots of fruits and vegetables “can help you ward off heart disease and stroke, control blood pressure, prevent some types of cancer, avoid a painful intestinal ailment called diverticulitis, and guard against cataract and macular degeneration, two common causes of vision loss.” They suggest eating as many as possible—at least 9 servings or about 4.5 cups a day for the average person. According to Harvard, the average American only consumes about 3 servings a day, which means many people consume even less.

Peaches—the EWG’s number one villain—are recommended by medical professionals because are high in potassium, a great source of vitamins A and C, and also offer the cancer-fighting antioxidant beta carotene. Drs. David Bryne and Luis Cisneros at the Texas AgriLife at Texas A&M University are working to breed peaches and other stone fruits to further enhance the anti-oxidant value.

Cisneros notes: "Stone fruits are super fruits with plums as emerging stars." In fact, studies conducted by Cisneros and Bryne find anti-oxidants in plums are as high as those found in blueberries, which are usually touted as the number one source for these cancer-fighting chemicals. Peaches and nectarines also tested quite high in for anti-oxidant value. Cisneros and Bryne are developing a red-skinned peach that could prove even more beneficial.

Yet EWG advice would have consumers forgo the fruits that research and other cancer-fighting foods because of trace-level pesticides. Yet the data EWG used to make its case—residue sampling of produce conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture during 2000-2007—reveals the pesticide levels are negligible.

For example, about 98 percent of the thousands of samples USDA collected complied with EPA safety standards (called a tolerance). Those that did not comply only exceeded standards by inconsequential amounts—often less than one part per million.

Consider EWG’s number one villain—peaches. EWG warns consumers about the “dangers” posed by the simple fact that peaches contain traces of pesticide residues. EWG laments: “87 percent of a single sample had two or more pesticide residues” and “one sample had nine pesticides.” They note further that 53 pesticides were found on the samples of peaches tested. Yet the real question is whether the samples contain residues in amounts that matter to public health. The data strongly indicate that they do not.

USDA studies find that more than 98 percent of peaches tested (2000-2007) were in compliance with EPA’s extremely cautious standards. There were only 30 violations over 7-years and thousands of samples. In those cases, standards exceeded EPA limits by less than a part per million—with an average violation of 0.89 parts per million.

Such violations have no public health impact. EPA standards are set so that even a child could be exposed at levels thousands of times higher without ill effect. For example, research of University of Texas’s Prof. Frank Cross highlights a number of studies showing that the EPA’s risk estimates overstate pesticide exposure by as much as 99,000 to 463,000 times actual exposure. They are actually tens of thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—times more stringent than necessary to protect public health. An occasional exceedance of one-part-per million makes no difference.

EWG also laments that a few chemicals get on the produce for which EPA has no tolerance. But these products are not applied to the produce for pest control. Most get on in tiny amounts, by accident, so low that they do not warrant EPA and USDA action or concern about public health.

In any case, washing produce has been shown to reduce pesticide residues significantly in many studies as noted on the Food and Drug Administration’s website. Of course washing is particularly important to remove dirt, fungi, bacteria and other risks created by Mother Nature.

But rather than offer constructive advice, activists would rather generate unwarranted fear. Yet the real peril lies in their advice.