EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” Contradicts Its Own “Food Scores”

Teresa Thorne Speaks Against EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” List

By Charmayne Hefley, Associate Editor

There are constant concerns plaguing consumers about the safety of the foods they eat. As a result, consumers turn to the internet as a way to educate themselves, and oftentimes visit sites such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for information. Teresa Thorne of the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) said EWG is self-contradictory in its statements of food safety.

“Nine months ago, the Environmental Working Group released the Food Scores database which ranks organic and conventional fruits and vegetables among the best foods for consumers and urges them to eat more,” Thorne said.

And, EWG published the following statement on its website:

No, eat your fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables.

“So it’s ironic that four or five months later,” Thorne continued, “they released their Dirty Dozen list again and called those same conventionally grown fruits and vegetables they just said were safe and that consumers should be eat more of, ‘dirty’ and ‘toxin-laden’ in the new release.”

In addition, EWG reports widespread pesticide contamination among many conventionally grown fruits and vegetables with the explanation that a number of pesticides are EPA-approved for each crop, pesticides have been detected in produce and the USDA data reflects these findings. Elsewhere on their website, EWG acknowledges nearly all analyzed samples (99%) did not contain pesticide residues above legal limits—U.S. EPA safety levels or tolerances. EWG counters with an unsupported statement that ‘legal isn’t always safe’.

When the EWG released their food scores database, the AFF commended the group on finally adopting the same message as health experts. Thorne said AFF requested the EWG stop confusing consumers through their ‘Dirty Dozen’ list.

“We called on EWG when they published the Food Scores database to stop issuing the Dirty Dozen list,” Thorne said. “It’s conflicting information and it only confuses consumers.”

Thorne said not only do decades of scientific research back up the safety of consuming conventionally grown produce, the research shows that eating more fruits and vegetables in general prevents disease and premature death.

AFF reports on its website:

Recent research has shown that around 29% of consumers are not purchasing fruits and vegetables due to concerns about pesticide residues. Further, the Centers for Disease Control recently issued a report that consumption of fruits and vegetables continues to decline.

EWG proclaims, “We definitely recommend eating produce from the Dirty Dozen™ list rather than foods or snacks that are not as healthful, such as fat-, sugar- or additive-laden processed products.” Nonetheless, the deterrent name of their list remains unchanged.

“There’s so much research out there,” Thorne said, “that shows the benefit of eating more fruits and vegetables in your diet—both organic and conventionally grown produce. That’s what the message should be for consumers instead of this conflicting information on safe vs. not safe. It’s really inaccurate and unfair. Conventional and organic fruits and vegetables are safe. We should all be eating more. Let’s work together to get that message out to consumers.”

SURPRISE: EWG recommends Fruits & Vegetables – Conventional or Organic

EWG to Continue Publishing  “Dirty Dozen” List of Conventional Produce

By Laurie Greene; CalAgToday Editor, Reporter

This week, Marilyn Dolan, the Executive Director of the Alliance For Food and Farming[1] (AFF) sent a letter to Environmental Working Group[2] (EWG) President Ken Cook requesting they discontinue their annual release of the so-called “dirty dozen” list. Scott Faber, EWG’s Vice President of Government Affairs responded online TODAY that “EWG’s top shelf advice is to eat your fruits and veggies. But, as EWG’s research shows, not all veggies are the same, and some have more pesticide residues than others. That’s why we will ignore the call to discontinue publishing our Shopper’s Guide.”Food Scoring Factors

This correspondence comes following EWG’s statement that organic and conventional produce are best foods for consumers and that organization’s new and strongly worded recommendation about the need for increased consumption of all fruits and vegetables – whether they are organically or conventionally grown. The statement accompanied the release of EWG’s Food Scores: Rate Your Plate, an easy-to-use food database and mobile app on October 27, 2014 that rates and shares information for more than 80,000 foods from about 1,500 brands in a simple, searchable, online format. “The new database is the most comprehensive food-rating database available to consumers,” EWG said in a statement. “Its scoring system factors in not only nutrition, but also ingredients of concern, such as food additives, and contaminants. It also estimates the degree to which foods have been processed.”

Each year, EWG publishes Shopper’s Guide To Pesticides In Produce “to help consumers find conventional fruits and vegetables with low concentrations of pesticide residues,” explained Sonya Lunder, EWG’s senior analyst and principle author of the report.  “If a particular item is likely to be high in pesticides, people can go for organic.”

While the annual Shopper’s Guide features a “Clean Fifteen” section of conventional produce with the least amount of pesticide residues, it is famous for its annual “Dirty Dozen” list of the most pesticide-contaminated produce and its Dirty Dozen™ Plus” highlights hot peppers and leafy greens – kale and collard greens – often tainted with unusually hazardous pesticides. The Alliance for Food and Fiber has worked hard to debunk the dirty dozen list,” said Dolan, “with good scientific evidence that even though produce may have crop protection product residues on a small percentage of the total volume of produce, the residue is far less than FDA standards.”

Here is the letter from AFF to EWG, in its entirety.

Mr. Cook:AFF

We noted your organization’s acknowledgment in the “Food Scores” database that both conventional and organic fruits and vegetables should be considered best food choices for consumers.  We also saw the Environmental Working Group’s new and very strong statement concerning the need to increase daily produce consumption for most Americans now posted on your website. 

As you are well aware, our organization, the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), has repeatedly requested that you discontinue the publication of your annual “dirty dozen” list because it is misleading to consumers, is not peer-reviewed and is not based on real risk.  The conventional and organic fruit and vegetable farmers we represent produce a very safe product that experts around the world agree we should all be eating more of for better health.  In addition, the USDA, FDA and EPA all clearly state that residues do not pose a food safety concern.

For these reasons, along with EWG’s new and strong acknowledgement of the health and safety of conventional produce, the AFF renews its call for your organization to end your annual release of the “dirty dozen” list.

While there is still much information to come with respect to the validity and credibility of your new “Food Scores” report, we are pleased to see that, for produce, this new report supports decades of nutritional studies showing the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables – regardless of whether they are organic or conventional. We are sure you would agree that it is illogical for your organization to urge consumers to eat more conventional produce while simultaneously mislabeling these safe and healthy foods “dirty,” “toxic laden,” and “contaminated” among other things.

Therefore we ask you to stop unfairly disparaging conventionally grown fruits and vegetables with your annual “dirty dozen” list release.  Instead, please continue on the positive path you’ve established with your new statement urging increased consumption. That is the right message for consumers and also meets your organization’s stated objective to “empower people to live healthier lives.”

We look forward to hearing from you regarding your future intentions for the so-called “dirty dozen” list.


Marilyn Dolan, Executive Director, Alliance for Food and Farming


Here is the Scott Faber, EWG’s Vice President of Government Affairs’s response to AFF TODAY in its entirety:

Food industry lobbyists are none too pleased with EWG’s new scoring system for foods, accusing EWG’s Food Scores of:



         “Void of scientific rigor”

         “Inaccurate and misleading information”

         “Extreme and scientifically unfounded views”

Seems like we hit a nerve.

Apparently, helping consumers identify those foods with too much fat, sugar and salt  — as well as foods with unregulated food chemicals or too much mercury – is giving Big Food’s hired guns indigestion.

Of course, food manufacturers don’t like scoring systems like NuVal or Guiding Stars, so it’s no surprise they are already attacking Food Scores.

Could it be that so many packaged foods score poorly?

Here’s what we found: far too many packaged foods have too much sugar, salt and fat and many foods contain chemicals or other ingredients of concern.  Overall, 25 percent of the 80,000 products we reviewed received and 8, 9 or 10. (For EWG, less is more: the best foods score a 1, while the worst foods score a 10.)  

Big Food’s lobbyists contend that we relied upon “isolated studies” to include added sugars and some low-calorie sweeteners in our scores. By “isolated studies,” they mean peer-reviewed research by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Big Food’s lobbyists also claim that we used “online sources” to address the risks posed by arsenic and other food contaminants. By  “online sources,” they mean the Food and Drug Administration.

In fact, our scoring system is based upon hundreds of studies conducted by leading experts, including those at the World Health Organization. And, unlike industry-funded studies of food chemicals, the studies that served as our references are available for everyone to see.

Big Food’s lobbyists are especially peeved that EWG recognized that organic foods score better than conventional foods.

Well, duh. Unlike so-called “natural” foods peddled by food giants, certified organic foods cannot be produced with toxic pesticides, antibiotics and hormones. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has even stricter rules when it comes to what can go into “flavors.”  Nor can organic food use genetically engineered ingredients, though GE content doesn’t factor into our scoring system.

Even fruit and vegetable lobbyists took time to bash EWG’s new food scoring tool.  Top scores for actual fruits and vegetables weren’t enough for the Alliance for Food and Farming, a trade association that represents conventional produce growers, which accused EWG of making “disparaging, inaccurate safety claims” in our Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. This is the same group that blamed EWG for scaring people away from healthy food and spent $180,000 of your tax dollars erroneously claiming the Shopper’s Guide discourages people from eating their fruits and veggies.

As regular users of the Shopper’s Guide know, EWG’s  top shelf advice is to eat your fruits and veggies. But, as EWG’s research shows, not all veggies are the same, and some have more pesticide residues than others. That’s why we will ignore the call to discontinue publishing our Shopper’s Guide.

It seems that some food and farm lobbyists can’t handle the food truth.


[1]AFF, a non-profit organization comprised of approximately 50 agriculture associations, commodity groups and individual growers/shippers who represent farms of all sizes and includes conventional and organic production, works to provide a voice for farmers to communicate their commitment to food safety and land stewardship. Through outreach to the media and consumers, the Alliance provides information and scientific analyses on many food safety subjects, including foodborne illness and pesticide use, among others. “The Alliance for Food and Fiber has worked hard to debunk the dirty dozen list with good scientific evidence that even though produce may have crop protection product residues on a small percentage of the total volume of produce, the residue is far less than FDA standards.”

[2]The Environmental Working Group http://www.ewg.org/about-us, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, aims to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment by driving consumer choice and civic action with:

  • game-changing investigations, research and debate on toxics and environmental health, food and agriculture, and water and energy
  • a team of scientists, policy experts, lawyers, communication experts and programmers who stand up for public health when government or industry won’t.

Alliance for Food and Farming: EWG Unfairly Targets Apples and Needlessly Scares Consumers

Watsonville, CA — A non-profit group representing farmers of conventional and organic fruits and vegetables is urging caution concerning claims made today by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

According to the Alliance for Food and Farming, the EWG is making an attempt to reinvigorate waning media interest in its upcoming Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce,  by making inflammatory claims about the safety of apples, a favorite fruit of Americans and, in particular, children.

“EWG is once again scaring consumers about an extremely safe and healthy product that parents should be feeding their children more of for good health,” said Marilyn Dolan, Executive Director of the Alliance for Food and Farming.  “The Alliance is disappointed apples are once again being unfairly targeted by an activist group, which is distorting the facts.  We are urging reporters to use caution and that they contact reputable scientists, government agencies and nutritionists for more information before jeopardizing the livelihoods of family farmers and needlessly scaring consumers.”

The Alliance notes the EWG claims concern a compound, known as DPA, applied to apples following harvest to prevent them scalding during cold storage.  Monitoring of this compound is regularly conducted as part of the United States Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program (PDP) and it has been found to be well below tolerance levels. More than 60 countries and the World Health Organization have found this compound to be safe when used according to stringent regulations governing all uses of pesticides by U.S. farmers.

Dr. Carl Winter, a toxicologist with the University of California, Davis, states that DPA residues specifically have been shown to be 208 times lower than the US. Environmental Protection Agency’s reference dose.

It should be noted, however, that fresh apples were not included in this year’s PDP report, although they have been tested through this program many times before.  Data from this government report is used by EWG to develop its so-called dirty dozen list, but they may be using old data to make these most recent claims about apples.

“The United States Department of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have stated residues do not pose a food safety concern,” said Dolan. “Residues of DPA, or any other pesticide, that may be found on apples are consistently extremely low according to decades of monitoring by government agencies.   The residues are so low, in fact, that an independent toxicological report finds that a small child could eat 154 servings of apples every day without any impact from any residues that might be present.”

The Alliance for Food and Farming has developed a website working with experts in toxicology, nutrition, risk assessment and farming where people can learn more about the regulations in place to ensure the safety of fruits and vegetables at www.safefruitsandveggies.com.

Dolan urged consumers to use its pesticide residue calculator to learn more about residues on their favorite fruits and vegetables and she emphasized that health experts around the world agree, and even the EWG has stated, that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables far outweighs any risks from residues that may be present.

She also emphasizes that decades of research backs up the clear health benefits associated with eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.  A series of reports on these health benefits can be found on the Safe Fruits and Veggies website.

The Alliance for Food and Farming has been preparing for the annual release of the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, which is scheduled for release next week. The Alliance has been successful in recent years in shedding more light on the topic of pesticide residues by giving consumers and media more information about the safety of conventional and organic fruits and vegetables. As a result of this work, consumers now have a science-based resource for information, unlike the EWG Shoppers Guide, which is not based on peer-reviewed science.