Consumer Reports Found 'Alarming' Levels of Pesticides in US Produce

It offered a few solutions too.

<p>deyangeorgiev / Getty Images</p>

deyangeorgiev / Getty Images

On Thursday, Consumer Reports released its latest study on pesticides in fruits and vegetables stocked in American grocery stores.

In the report, the nonprofit reviewed seven years of data from the Department of Agriculture, which showed test results from a "selection of conventional and organic produce grown in or imported to the U.S. for pesticide residues." Consumer Reports looked at 59 of those common fruits and vegetables, including canned, dried, or frozen ones. And the results, the organization stated in its findings, "raised flags," including finding a pesticide on green beans that's been banned in the U.S. for more than a decade.

"In a broad sense, say in the past 10 years since we've been looking at this, we've noticed that there have been hazardous pesticides that have come off the market. So that's positive," Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports, told Food & Wine. But then, he says, they are often replaced with something potentially far worse. "This is what we call 'regrettable substitution.'" And no, that's just not some cute term, but a very real scientific one.

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"It's two steps forward and one step back — and sometimes even two steps back," James E. Rogers, PhD, shared in the findings. 

Those hazardous pesticides include organophosphates, which have been shown to have "neurodevelopmental effects," and carbamate insecticides, which also have "toxic effects such as interfering with the reproductive systems and fetal development," according to the 2012 book, "The Impact of Pesticides." It was the presence of these pesticides that led Consumer Reports scientists to note in their findings that they think "many EPA tolerances are set too high." So, for its findings, it used lower limits for pesticides that can "harm the body’s neurological system or are suspected endocrine disruptors," to help people make more informed decisions about what they put in their bodies.

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“The way the EPA assesses pesticide risk doesn’t reflect cutting-edge science and can’t account for all the ways the chemicals might affect people’s health, especially given that people are often exposed to multiple pesticides at a time,” Hansen noted in the findings. “So we take a precautionary approach to make sure we don’t underestimate risks.” He additionally told F&W,

"That's why we're making bigger asks here, saying that what needs to be done is the whole class of organophosphates and carbamate pesticides should be banned because the risk is just as high as when we started looking at this — even though there have been very bad pesticides that have come off the market."

But it's not all doom and gloom. Consumer Reports noted that pesticides presented "little to worry about" in about two-thirds of the foods it looked into, including "nearly all organic ones." The team of scientists also notes that the biggest risks are caused by just a few pesticides, and those are "concentrated in a handful of foods, grown on a small fraction of U.S. farmland."

“That makes it easier to identify the problems and develop targeted solutions,” Rogers said, adding that the EPA would need to make those solutions a reality to ensure all food is safe across the U.S.

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In total, 12 foods gave the team the "bigger concerns." That list included U.S.-grown and imported bell peppers, blueberries (both canned and frozen), imported celery, imported collard greens, U.S.-grown and imported green beans, hot peppers, kale, and potatoes, U.S.-grown mustard greens, spinach (both canned and frozen), imported strawberries (both fresh and frozen), and U.S.-grown watermelon. 

Importantly, the team noted that the fruits and vegetables it looked at may rank higher or lower not due to a high level of pesticides, but rather, "relatively few residues but worrisome levels" of some of what it considers high-risk pesticides.

Green beans fall into this category. Consumer Reports said they qualified as high risk because of a pesticide known as "acephate or one of its breakdown products, methamidophos." Just 4% of domestic green bean samples were positive for both, but their levels were found to be "alarmingly high." That means that when you grab a bunch at the store, you may not get the pesticide every time, but if you do, it will be at extremely high levels. But that's not the worst part.

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"This is especially troubling because neither chemical should be on green beans at all: Growers in the U.S. have been prohibited from applying acephate to green beans since 2011, and methamidophos to all food since 2009," Consumer reports noted.

As for how to mitigate risk, Consumer Reports said that children and pregnant people should consume less than a serving a day of what it identified as high-risk fruits and vegetables, and less than half a serving per day of ones marked as "very high-risk."

It also suggested that people should buy organic versions of these high- and very high-risk produce as they contain far fewer pesticides (though not completely pesticide-free, which is a common misconception about organic produce). This can not only help your body, but also goes toward supporting an industry that better protects farm workers from exposure and the surrounding communities from groundwater contamination.

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Though Hansen suggests washing fruits and vegetables as a good practice in general, he noted that it will do little to rid your produce of pesticides entirely, as they are usually placed on crops during the growth phase, not just sprayed on top.

He also suggests supporting legislation aimed at eliminating these pesticides like this one

“... the vast majority of fruits and vegetables eaten in the U.S. are already grown without hazardous pesticides,” Brian Ronholm, head of food policy at Consumer Reports, added in the report. “We just don’t need them. And the foods American consumers eat every day would be much, much safer without them.”

And then the final message, Hansen says, is this: "We are not telling people to not eat fresh fruits and vegetables. Because they're actually nutritional benefits for all this. People should be increasing the amount that they consume. Just try to do it with a little bit more sophistication to minimize your risk." See the full findings at

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