Strawberries top this year's list of the produce with the highest level of pesticide residue, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
The fruit displaces apples -- now ranked second -- which headed the "Dirty Dozen" list for the previous five years.
For the report, the group analyzed test results of more than 35,200 samples of fruits and vegetables taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
Nearly all of the (non-organic) strawberry samples -- at least 98 percent -- had detectable pesticide residues, with 47 percent having residues of 10 or more pesticides. Some samples showed residue from 17 different pesticides.
Though some of the chemicals found on the strawberries are relatively benign, others have been linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption, and neurological problems, the group reports.
"It is startling to see how heavily strawberries are contaminated with residues of hazardous pesticides, but even more shocking is that these residues don't violate the weak U.S. laws and regulations on pesticides in food," Sonya Lunder, EWG Senior Analyst, said in a statement. "The EPA's levels of residues allowed on produce are too lax to protect Americans' health. They should be updated to reflect new research that shows even very small doses of toxic chemicals can be harmful, particularly for young children."
The EPA says the levels are not harmful to eat. "We perform dietary risk assessments to ensure that all tolerances established for each pesticide are safe. These assessments account for the fact that the diets of infants and children may be quite different from those of adults and that they consume more food for their size than adults," the agency says on its website.
The complete list of the 2016 "Dirty Dozen" included many popular fruits and vegetables:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
The Environmental Working Group also noted that while hot peppers and leafy greens like kale and collard greens did not meet the criteria to be ranked on the list, some samples were found to contain toxic insecticides, and it encouraged consumers to consider organic options.
Conversely, avocados lead the list of the group's "Clean Fifteen" list, with less than one percent of samples showing any detectable pesticides. No single fruit sample from this "clean" list tested positive for more than four types of pesticides and very few for more than one.
The "Clean Fifteen" fruits and vegetables highlighted by the report are:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melon
To help consumers make informed decisions, EWG updates its Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce each year, ranking pesticide contamination on 48 popular fruits and vegetables.
To limit exposure to these chemicals, the group recommends purchasing organic for the fruits and vegetables that ranked high in pesticide residue in the report.
"Fruits and vegetables are important for your health," Lunder said. "But for those on the Dirty Dozen, we recommend buying the organic versions if you want to avoid pesticides on your food."
However, industry groups were quick to respond to the group's list. The Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) released a statement today, calling the EWG report "misleading" and questioning the scientific procedures used to develop the "Dirty Dozen" list. They also point to the USDA's Pesticide Data Program report, which states that the pesticide levels found on 99 percent of the products sampled do not pose a safety concern.
"The one consistent message that health experts agree upon and that is confirmed with decades of nutrition research is that a diet rich in fruits and veggies whether conventional or organic leads to better health and a longer life," Marilyn Dolan, AFF executive director, said in the statement. "This is the message we should all be promoting to consumers."