A Toxicologist Explains What Consumer Reports Doesn’t Understand About Produce


Once again, Consumer Reports is making some pretty questionable claims about our food. This time, it’s about the safety of organic versus conventional produce, based on the pest control methods used by farmers. We’ve talked about the erroneous science behind publicity-seeking lists like the Dirty Dozen before, but there were a few claims in Consumer Reports’ new article that we thought were in particularly dire need of a FACT-check.

Claim: “Eating one serving of green beans from the U.S. is 200 times riskier than eating a serving of U.S.-grown broccoli.”

FACT Check: Our Senior Food Safety Director, Anthony Flood, said it best: “To me, this makes no sense.  There is no significant data to suggest one is riskier than the other.” Quantifying ‘risk’ in this way for a behavior (eating vegetables) that has no evidence of harm is at best strange, or at worst, manipulative.

Claim: The evidence that pesticides hurt your health is “based on occupational and environmental studies of populations who work with these chemicals closely and regularly.”

FACT Check: Environmental and occupational exposure to pesticide, particularly in situations where handling instructions aren’t followed, is not remotely akin to trace amounts on food.  Dr. Carl Winter, Director of the FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist at the University of California, Davis, is one of the nation’s leading experts on how chemicals can affect humans. Dr. Winter explained to us that “dietary exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides pose negligible risks to consumers.”

Claim: “Children are at greatest risk from pesticide exposure, because a child’s metabolism is different from an adult’s.”

FACT Check: In the case of both organic and conventional produce, the levels of pesticide residues detected are very low – far below that which USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have deemed to be safe for all human consumption – and not at a level to warrant health concerns.  Dr. Winter also emphasized that “substitution of organic forms of these products for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risk,” regardless of who is eating them.

Claim: “Natural pesticides are usually less toxic than synthetic ones.”

FACT Check: All pesticides are ‘toxic’ … to pests. That’s the point—and it’s an important one. Whether you follow conventional or organic growing methods, farmers don’t want to lose everything to a pest. Up to 40 percent of the world’s potential crop production is already lost annually because of problems like pests, which hurts farmers and the rest of us. You would probably also prefer buying peaches that are pest-free and undamaged. The idea that conventional and organic pest control differs is fundamentally flawed. As Scientific American highlighted, “the idea that a chemical is ‘safe’ because it is natural, is not correct.”

Claim: You should not skip conventionally grown produce. The risks of pesticides are real, but the myriad health benefits of fruits and vegetables are, too.

FACT Check: Well, they’ve got it half right! The “risks of pesticides” are not a real threat to consumers. But we definitely found something we agree on. The health benefits from fruits and vegetables are essential. It’s not about whether you buy organic or conventionally produced produce. It’s about getting your 5 servings of fruits and veggies each day.

“Consumers have nothing to fear or to feel guilty about if they choose to purchase conventional forms of produce on the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list. My and others’ research demonstrates that the existing regulatory approach for pesticides, including a safety review and establishment of appropriate pesticide application practices, protects the public.”  – Carl Winter, PhD, Director of the FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist, University of California, Davis, Food Insight, 2014