California commodity growers have taken the gloves off in their fight to refute a list by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that gives the false impression that pesticide residue amounts on certain fruits and vegetables are toxic and should be avoided.

EWG’s “Dirty Dozen list” of commodity fruits and vegetables – or its “Shoppers Guide,” as EWG describes it – has been around for almost two decades, but in the last few years has been getting an exorbitant amount of press coverage almost daily. So much publicity, in fact, that consumers have begun avoiding buying these commodities out of fear for their health and the well-being of their families.

This steady drip-drip of bad publicity has begun transforming consumer buying habits into preferring organically grown produce over the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables named on the Dirty Dozen list. Or, if unaffordable, avoiding them all together, despite the proven health benefits afforded by these food items. As you can well imagine, agricultural commodity groups and medical experts as well – quite perplexed and alarmed by this troubling trend – finally put their heads together in combating a threat that they see as based on unscientific, misleading, or outright bogus claims targeting conventionally grown produce. They asked the obvious question: Are the commodities listed on the Dirty Dozen list really dangerous as EWG claims?

In an attempt to find out the science used to arrive at the Dirty Dozen list, an expert panel of toxicologists, risk assessors and nutritionists was commissioned by the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF located in Watsonville) – a small but stalwart band dedicated to preventing the defamation of the farmer.

During a series of AFF webinars presented in July to agricultural groups as well as health specialists and journalists, the panel concluded that consumers should not be afraid of eating any fruit or vegetable because of pesticide residues, despite claims to the contrary generated by the Dirty Dozen list. In addition, AFF launched a new Web site located at www.safefruitsandveggies.com that focuses on the research conducted by its panel of experts. Below is what they found:

• The Dirty Dozen list is misleading to consumers because it is based only on exposure data while remaining silent about available information on the toxicity of pesticides present in the diet. Merely detecting a residue does not mean it is unsafe.

• The U.S. EPA’s process for evaluating the potential risks of pesticides on food is rigorous and health-protective. The EPA’s testing requirements for pesticides used on food are more extensive than for chemicals used in any other category, and include testing targeted specifically to assess the potential risks to fetuses, infants and children.

• Given the widespread media attention devoted to the Dirty Dozen list, it is disconcerting that the group behind the list has not shared its algorithm with the scientific community or the public, nor has the report been subjected to outside peer review. Put another way, EWG assigned each commodity a score of 1 to 100, with 100 being the worst. However, the details on how the scoring for each commodity involving six different measurements was integrated into a composite score have never been provided. Thus, the scores cannot be readily reproduced.

• The currently available scientific evidence does not conclude that there is any risk associated with the pesticide residues found on fresh fruits and vegetables.

AFF’s webinars were quickly countered by a media teleconference by the Washington, D.C.-based EWG. Group President Ken Cook said that a main reason “Big Agriculture” is attacking the Dirty Dozen list is because of the quickly growing organic produce market. He said consumers are saying they like pesticide-free produce, adding, “What Big Agriculture seems to be saying is, ‘Shut up and eat your pesticides.’”

Now I’ll interject my 2 cents. I think it’s a good idea to give people all of the information that we can about pesticides. But the myth that organic foods don’t have pesticides used on them is one that really needs to go away. You see, the federal National Organic Program and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation registers pesticides for use on organic crops, so the message that organic crops don’t use pesticides is in fact a misnomer.

These organic pesticides may be present at higher concentrations than synthetic pesticides and may have similar effects on humans. No farmer, organic or non-organic, wants to use anymore pesticides than the crop requires. Certain crops are rarely sprayed regardless of whether they’re produced organically or not. Pesticides are expensive, but when faced with the potential loss of a crop, growers will do what they need to do to avoid losing their crop, and if that means applying pesticides then that is what has to be done.

Lastly, I am living proof that conventional produce is not all that bad. I’ve been on this earth for 63 years and I have been eating fruits and vegetables with pesticide residues since I was a kid. I’m still kicking and so are a bunch of my friends who ate the same. And as far as avoiding conventional produce because of the Dirty Dozen list, it turns out that our moms were right: eat your fruits and vegetables, conventional or otherwise. For the good of your own health, it sure beats filling up on fast-food junk or Hostess Twinkies.