Monday, June 13, 2011

Apples Top "Dirty Dozen"

The apple industry faces a potential public-relations headache in the wake of federal testing that found pesticide residues in 98% of America's second-most-popular fresh fruit, the highest rate among the produce screened by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a yearly survey.

In the vast majority of cases, residues of the 48 different pesticides the USDA found in its sampling of apples—the nation's most widely consumed fresh fruit after bananas—were within amounts that federal regulators consider safe to eat.

But the department's study has prompted the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based consumer-advocacy group, to put conventionally raised apples at the top of its latest "Dirty Dozen" list.

That list, which identifies the fruits and vegetables the group says are the most contaminated with farm chemicals, is slated to be released today (June 13, 2011).

The USDA also found pesticide residue on more than 90% of samples of six other types of produce: grapes, strawberries, cilantro, potatoes, oranges and spinach. Before testing, laboratory workers washed the samples under cold water for 10 seconds to mimic the way consumers were expected to handle the foods at home.

The Environmental Working Group, which says it uses USDA and other government data to compile its lists, isn't advising people to stop eating those foods. "The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure," said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the group.

Still, the group's guidance can steer consumers away from crops that rely on insecticides, fungicides and weed killers.

Produce farmers, including apple producers, have long criticized its lists, saying they stir needless doubts about foods that comply with federal standards and whose growers are doing nothing improper.

For shoppers who can't or don't want to pay the premium prices charged for organic produce, the group publishes a list of the conventional crops it says offer the lowest exposure to pesticides. The revised "Clean 15" list, which it is also issuing Monday, is topped by onions, sweet corn, pineapples and avocados.

Congress ordered the USDA to survey the levels of pesticide in food annually following the 1989 Alar controversy involving apples.

Apple sales sank after a broadcast on the CBS news-magazine program "60 Minutes" linked Alar to health risks, and the pesticide was banned from use on food.

In years when the USDA has included apples in its surveys, which began in 1991, pesticide residues have been found in a high percentage of the samples.

Conventional growers use chemicals extensively in their orchards to ward off blemishes that can hurt the appearance, and thus the value, of their crop.

Fungicides, meanwhile, are routinely applied to apples because the fruit is often stored for several months before reaching consumers.

The U.S. Apple Association, which represents the $2.2 billion industry, has long complained about the "Dirty Dozen" list, which ranked apples No. 4 last year and celery as No. 1.

"It's a headache. …It implies that something terrible is going on," said Mark Seetin, the trade group's director of regulatory affairs. "But growers are doing nothing illegal. They're just trying to keep their apples fresh and nutritious."

The Environmental Protection Agency uses the USDA survey to help calculate the amount of pesticides in the American diet which, in turn, guides the federal government's decisions about whether and how farmers can use these chemicals. Excessive exposure to pesticides can cause health problems, such as an increased risk of cancer.

Tracking the prevalence of pesticide residue in the food supply over time is difficult, in part because the USDA changes the crops it screens from year to year. In its latest study, 57.4% of 11,811 samples of 21 different types of food had pesticide residue, the vast majority at levels the government considers safe to consume.

DDT continues to show up in food even though it was banned in the U.S. in 1972. The insecticide persists for a long time in soil, getting into grass eaten by cattle or the bottoms of ponds. Minuscule amounts of one degraded form of DDT was found by the USDA in 65% of the survey's catfish samples and 24% of its samples of beef fat, albeit at levels below those considered unsafe by regulators.

Source: Wall Street Journal,

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