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No Shame: EWG Promotes Dirty Dozen Amidst A Global Pandemic

So, if you haven’t noticed, we’re currently experiencing the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. It’s crippling our economy, killing thousands of people around the world, and spreading like wildfire. Most people have responded by being generous, giving back when possible, and looking out for each other.

But not everyone.

Despite the pandemic, the Environmental Working Group decided to move forward with releasing its annual “dirty dozen” list. According to EWG, this list ranks the produce with the highest levels of pesticide residue for 2019. It recommends that shoppers purchase organic versions of those fruits and vegetables.

EWG’s dirty dozen list is based on annual data obtained by the USDA. USDA randomly tests all types of produce and reports on any pesticide residue it finds. The goal is to make sure that the food supply is safe. And year after year, USDA’s conclusion is the same: our produce is safe! Any trace amounts of pesticides found on the produce are insignificant and won’t harm us.

But EWG’s list twists that message into something sinister. It takes the USDA’s data and ranks produce according to which foods had the highest residue samples. Remember, even the highest residues found are well within safe limits, but EWG changes the message into something dangerous. As my friend and scientist Steve Savage explains: “That analysis is egregiously misleading because it essentially counts all detections equally, ignoring what chemical it is, at what level it was detected, and how that compares to the crop-chemical-specific EPA tolerances.”

It’s not necessarily surprising that that EWG decided to move forward with releasing its dirty dozen list, even though we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Why? Because major news organizations usually report on EWG’s efforts and the results are widely shared. And that means more donations to the organization. Just check out their website and you’ll be inundated with pop-ups asking you to donate! So not releasing the list would hurt EWG’s pocketbook.

But the message couldn’t come at a worse time when people are already scared and worried about their health. We know that eating a varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables–whether conventional or organic–supports overall health. And we also know that messaging, like the dirty dozen list, actually turns people away from eating those foods. That’s the last thing we want to encourage right now!

And EWG knows this. While promoting the misleading list, it provided a disclaimer:

NOTE: As all Americans struggle to adapt to the reality of daily life during the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to know that there is no evidence people can be exposed through food. The spread pattern for coronavirus is quite different from those of foodborne pathogens like salmonella and E.coli.That is why, even though the risks of COVID-19 are serious, consumers should continue eating plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables, whether they are conventional or organic.

EWG (emphasis added).

I’m not sure whether to be annoyed or astounded at the cognitive dissonance. EWG is well known for the dirty dozen list. There’s documented research that this type of marketing message hurts consumers and turns them away from eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet EWG acknowledges that people should just focus on eating more produce, and not worry so much about the label. Seriously?!

The disclaimer is probably the most honest thing EWG has ever published.

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