Healthy Living

Dissing the Dirty Dozen?

dirty dozen apple organic foodLast week, the blogosphere was all a-twitter about a post maligning the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists, which are published each year in support of their annual “Pesticides in Produce” study. In the interest of full disclosure: I’ve been a supporter of EWG for years, and occasionally consult with the organization. But more importantly, I refer to these lists regularly when writing about organic food on Mommy Greenest. So the article had me worried: Was everything I believed about pesticides in produce wrong?

A recent article about EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” study had me worried: Was everything I believed about pesticides in produce wrong? Not exactly. Not exactly. The blogger basically accused EWG of using poor methodology in analyzing the USDA’s pesticide data, and pointed out that some organic farms use natural pesticides. But her takeaway on organic versus conventional farming seemed misguided to me. Rather than waste your time with my opinions on why, take a look at The Organic Center’s well-researched rebuttal to this and another recent post.

As I read through her argument, it seemed to me that the blogger was missing the big picture. Although I agree that “natural,” “green” and “organic” have pretty much been reduced to marketing terms, the USDA Certified Organic seal is truly valuable. Our government certifies that the food and products you put in and on your body are free of toxic synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, fertilizers, hormones and genetically modified ingredients, among other things.

Yes, it can be expensive and time-consuming to achieve USDA Certified Organic certification. Yes, you can find “clean” products without it—although you have to do far more homework on producers. But without programs like the Dirty Dozen, those producers probably wouldn’t have much of a market—and might not exist at all.

EWG’s work has served to build awareness of the difference between USDA Certified Organic and conventional products. In “Pesticides in Produce,” they created a bite-sized program that inspires millions of people to explore a healthier lifestyle for themselves and their families. This program—and others like it—helped create a large market for organic food.

But EWG doesn’t just market organic, the organization protects it, too. EWG’s documentation of pesticides in children’s food helped drive the passage of the landmark federal Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, which for the first time required the EPA to consider the risks of pesticides in food and their impact on children’s health. In 2002, strong consumer response to EWG’s food-focused programs helped convince Congress to allocate a portion of the $73 billion Farm Bill to conservation programs that support sustainable agriculture.

These actions set the stage for where we are today: In the past few years, consumer demand for natural and organic products has helped that industry grow at double the rate of conventional. So yes, by all means: Keep asking for natural and organic products. Buy local, whenever possible—I’m sure that the Environmental Working Group would echo that statement.

But don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

What do you think: Do you trust the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists? Why or why not? Please tell me about it, in comments below. Thanks!


  • Marina

    I have trusted the Clean Fifteen / Dirty Dozen for several years.
    As a parent, I believe that one of my fundamental responsibilities is to make sure that my children are learning how to take good care of themselves – the #1 lesson being learning about, and eating healthy food. I am greatly saddened when my daughter comes home from school, and tells me that some of her friends have only sweets or pre-packaged, chemical-laden food in their lunches. I am appalled that any parent would allow their child to eat in such unhealthy ways, and I often pack extra fruit for my daughter to share.
    That being said – the EWG Lists are a great tool to at least try to know what’s best to eat. And even if it isn’t 100% accurate, it’s still better than doing nothing. In these days of not only chemically grown, but also GMO food – educating ourselves is very important!

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