Pesticide Perception

June 07, 2012

Many consumers are nervous about pesticides in our foods – find out what the Alliance for Food and Farming has to say about the issue

Sixty percent of consumers express a high concern about pesticide residues, much of which is based on misleading information, according to The Alliance for Food and Farming, a non-profit organization which represents organic and conventional farmers and farms of all sizes. Established in 1989, The Alliance’s goal is to deliver credible information to consumers about the safety of fruits and vegetables.

The issue of pesticide residues can be very complex and terms are often used that are unfamiliar to many consumers. Many consumers are also unfamiliar with how their food is produced. However, there is a trend toward learning more about how food is grown which is very encouraging, says Teresa Thorne, Alliance spokesperson, especially when recent surveys show that 29% of consumers are buying less fruits and vegetables due to concerns about pesticide residues.

“We do our best to provide consumers with science-based information in order to help them in making their shopping decisions. The Alliance is an information resource only. We represent both organic and conventional farmers of all sizes, and we very much are in favor of consumer choice. But, we also want consumers to know that whatever they choose, both organic and conventional produce is very safe, and we should all be following the recommendation of health officials everywhere to eat more. So, our goal is to provide information from a variety of experts – scientists, nutritionists and farmers – and then let consumers decide what choice is best for them,” says Thorne.

The Alliance’s website,, is a chance for consumers to explore science based information about pesticide residues. The mere “presence” of a pesticide does not mean that the food is harmful, says Thorne, and to demonstrate this fact, the Alliance has provided a pesticide calculation tool, developed by Dr. Robert Krieger, Toxicologist with the Personal Chemical Exposure Program at the University of California, Riverside, to see how many servings a man, woman, teen or child could consume and still not have any adverse effects from pesticide residues. Because of the complexity of the residue issue, the calculator was designed to be an easy way to show the very minute levels of pesticide residues that are found (when present at all).

For example, a woman could consume 99,681 servings of carrots in one day without any effect, even if the carrots have the highest pesticide residue recorded for carrots by the USDA. A man could consume 2,640 strawberry servings under the same guidelines. A child could consume 154 apple servings, a teen could consume 233 blueberries servings, and so on. There are fourteen different fruits and vegetable items to choose from for the calculation.

One subject in particular, the so-called “Dirty Dozen,” gets particular attention on the site. The Dirty Dozen is a list put out by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) naming those fruits and vegetables (analyzed for pesticide residues by the USDA) that have the highest residues. But these lists fail to tell the consumer if the residue amounts represent a quantifiable risk to consumers, says Thorne. The danger in misinterpreting the risk implied by these lists may therefore lead consumers to shy away from an apple or pineapple out of the fear that they are unhealthy. As a result, they might miss out on the real health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables.

To better understand the “Dirty Dozen”, a panel of experts was convened by the Alliance for Food and Farming to assess the methodologies used and the recommendations made by EWG. Further, a peer reviewed study was recently published in the Journal of Toxicology by Dr. Carl Winter of U.C. Davis on the same topic. Interestingly, although both reports were conducted independently of each other, the findings were extremely similar.

“Among the findings, scientists concluded that the Dirty Dozen list is not risked based, the methodology used to create the list does not follow any established scientific procedures and that consumer exposures to the pesticide residues found on these produce commodities are several orders of magnitude below levels required to cause any biological effect,” says Thorne.

Health experts worldwide agree that we should be consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables – organic or conventionally grown. And there is a huge body of scientific research that clearly shows the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. The need to improve diets of Americans is being addressed by USDA’s new "half a plate initiative" and the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign. Yet, there is concern that calling certain fruits and vegetables “dirty” along with the use of inflammatory, misleading statements, is having an undermining effect on these health initiatives to increase produce consumption.

“We hope that the knowledge that Americans enjoy a very safe food supply and that government regulations are among the most stringent in the world will also instill consumer confidence,” says Thorne. “Hopefully, consumers with safety concerns will visit the website or our Facebook page.”

Additionally, Thorne says that concerned consumers can follow a very simple recommendation to “wash your fruits and vegetables.” The FDA states that washing often reduces or eliminates any minute pesticide residues that may be present.

“Our goal is to be an information resource, and we do our best to provide credible information from various experts in the areas of science, nutrition and farming,” adds Thorne.

Alliance contributors are limited to farmers of fruits and vegetables, companies that sell, market or ship fruits and vegetables or organizations that represent produce farmers. They do not engage in lobbying nor do they accept any money or support from the pesticide industry.

This article originally appeared in Food Nutrition and Science