Like his peers, Merced County, Calif., farmer Cannon Michael is fed up with the Environmental Working Group’s annual ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of so-called consumer alerts about pesticide contaminated fresh fruits and vegetables.

EWG’s list, collected from USDA and Food and Drug Administration testing data, reports such things as: pesticides detected on “up to 98 percent of the more than 700 apple samples tested,” and “33 unapproved pesticides (were found) on 44 percent of the cilantro samples tested.”

“What a bunch of self-serving scare tactics not based on science that only serve to degrade the American farmer and discourage the public from eating perfectly safe and nourishing food,” said Michael.

“So there were detections — almost entirely below the tolerances set by the EPA. Talk about a bunch of misinformation,” said Michael, the sixth-generation to farm on the family’s Bowles Farming near Los Banos, Calif.

“It is amazing these people can get away with this stuff. I would eat any of the so called ‘Dirty Dozen’ and feed them to my boys without worrying one bit. Totally insane!” said the father of three boys ages nine, eight and six.

“We actually live on a farm and our house is adjacent to a field where we sometimes even apply pesticides,” said the University of California, Berkeley graduate.

“A guide to protect you from a 0.3 percent chance that a food is over the tolerance level set is unbelievable. The tolerances are set by science and yet there is no mention of that in the news release. The Environmental Working Group just twist things to fit its agenda,” said Michael, who is a California Ag Leadership graduate and the current chairman of the California Cotton Growers Association. He is also active in many other agricultural groups.

EWG’s annual report is picked up without question by major news outlets and agriculture annually cringes at what Michael and others called distortion of the true facts.

“I walk in the same fields that my workers do. We spray (pesticides) as little as possible. We use IPM to determine when to treat.

Pesticides and organic ag

“I am so tired of these so called environmental groups painting American agriculture in a negative light and scaring the consumer to forward their agendas. We are on the ground making sure that everything is done in accordance with the law, label and what is right. Would these so-called watchdog groups rather get food from another country?

“How do you think those tolerances would look if we got all our food from Third World countries. It makes me so angry. We work so hard to produce clean products — and do so if you look at the numbers and don't twist them,” Michael said.

EWG highlights the worst offenders with its ‘Dirty Dozen’ list and the cleanest conventional produce with its ‘Clean 15’ list.

EWG President Ken Cook said, “Though buying organic is always the best choice, we know that sometimes people do not have access to that produce or cannot afford it. Our guide helps consumers concerned about pesticides to make better choices among conventional produce, and lets them know which fruits and vegetables they may want to buy organic.”

“Organic does not mean no pesticides. EWG does not tell you that,” Michael said. “Many products like sulfur used in organic food, and we use the same products in conventional agriculture. There are a number of pesticides we use every day that are also approved for use in organic food production. Groups like EWG do not tell the public that.”

Consumers who choose five servings of fruits and vegetables a day from EWG's ‘Clean 15’ list rather than from the ‘Dirty Dozen’ can lower the volume of pesticides they consume by 92 percent, according to EWG’s calculations. They will also eat fewer types of pesticides. Picking five servings of fruits and vegetables from the 12 most-contaminated products would result in consuming an average of 14 different pesticides a day. Choosing five servings from the 15 least contaminated fruits and vegetables would result in consuming fewer than two pesticides per day.

Distortions, not science

“This is a distortion not backed by science,” said Michael.

The latest EWG consumer guide came out after USDA released an overdue 2009 pesticide data program annual summary.

Eighteen produce trade organizations wrote U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on April 27, to express concern that the yearly pesticide residue data on fruits and vegetables may be misused by activist groups and the media to discourage people from consuming produce.

“While the USDA is not responsible for intentional mischaracterization by others, we strongly encourage USDA to provide the American public with a report that clearly reflects the strength of the regulatory system and the safety of products used to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to consumers,” the letter said.

The USDA’s 194-page report charts pesticide residue tests for fresh and processed fruit and vegetables, meat and poultry, grains, catfish, rice, specialty products, and water for 2009.

A little over 80 percent of the total samples collected in 2009 were from the following fresh and processed fruits and vegetables: apples, asparagus, canned beans, cilantro, cucumbers, grapes, green onions, lettuce (organic), oranges, pears, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, sweet corn (fresh on-the-cob/frozen), sweet potatoes and tomato paste.

“This report shows that overall pesticide residues found on foods tested are at levels below the tolerances established by [the Environmental Protection Agency],” the report states in a section, “What Consumers Should Know.”

“In 2009, residues exceeding the tolerance were detected in 0.3 percent of all samples tested and residues with no established tolerance were found in 2.7 percent of the samples,” the report said.

The USDA tried to consider how the report was used when writing the consumer section and in a letter in the front of the report, but the agency is charged with taking an objective view and cannot take an advocacy position, said Michael Jarvis, a USDA spokesman.