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Are Organic Foods As Good As They’re Grown? A Landmark Consumer Reports Study

December 15, 1997
Consumer Union Yonkers Office
(914) 378-2000

Residues: Least Is Best, But Don’t Shun Produce for Fear of Pesticides

YONKERS, NY – Organic fruits and vegetables have fewer pesticide residues than non-organic produce, they have lower levels of pesticides, and they have much less overall pesticide toxicity than fruits and vegetables grown with chemicals.
Yet organic produce tastes no different than “conventionally” grown produce, and any nutritional differences there might be between them are likely so subtle as to evade detection.
These are conclusions of a groundbreaking Consumer Reports study of pesticide residues in fresh fruits and vegetables. Other findings, presented in the magazine’s January issue:
* One-quarter of the organic produce samples that Consumer Reports tested had some pesticide residues on them, compared with 77 percent of the conventional samples.
* Of greater concern than the mere presence of pesticides is the type and amount of pesticides present. By that reckoning, the organic samples were far cleaner.
* The organic produce Consumer Reports purchased for its study cost – on average – 57 percent more than the conventionally grown produce the magazine bought. Yet sales of organic fruits and vegetables nationwide are booming.
The January article, “Greener Greens? — The Truth About Organic Foods” also reviews the state of organic farming in the U.S., including the environmental impacts of pesticide use, the rise of pesticide-resistant strains of bugs and weeds, the infiltration of pesticides into drinking water, and the secondary pest problems caused by pesticide use.
To conduct its study of pesticide residues, Consumer Reports bought about 1,000 pounds of tomatoes, peaches, apples and bell peppers – with some of each representing organic-,
conventional- and green-growing techniques – at locations around the country. (According to the widely accepted definition, organic farming involves only natural pesticides, such as plant extracts and bacteria that attack crop pests. Green-label foods are so-called because they claim to meet any of a number of criteria having to do with less-damaging farming practices, including reduced pesticide use and crop rotation.)
The produce was tested for more than 300 synthetic pesticides. Relative toxicity was measured by taking into account the short- and long-term toxicity of each pesticide, as well as the amount found on each sample. Organic foods showed the least relative toxicity, while conventionally grown foods had the most. Green-label foods, which have just started appearing in stores, had generally low residue levels. All but one of the samples had residues within federal limits.
“Trying to avoid pesticide residues by avoiding fresh fruits and vegetables altogether is detrimental – not beneficial – to your health,” says Edward Groth III, director of Technical Policy and Public Service for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. “But you can reduce your exposure to these chemicals, and still receive the many health benefits of fresh produce, by eating foods with less residue. Our tests help you do that.”
No longer the stunted, blemished produce of yesteryear, the magazine’s trained tasters say, organic foods nowadays are as attractive and tasty as their conventional counterparts. And with myriad certification programs soon to be standardized by U.S. Department of Agriculture rules, consumer confusion over what constitutes “organic” foods should be reduced.
Consumers who can’t afford or find organic fruits and vegetables, and who are concerned about pesticide residues, might consider washing conventionally grown foods with diluted liquid dish detergent, then rinsing with tap water, “Greener Greens?” says.
The January issue of Consumer Reports will be available Dec. 30 wherever magazines are sold. To order this report by fax or mail through Consumer Reports by Request, at a cost of $7.75 per report, call 800-419-9824 and specify code 9643. This report will also be available Dec. 30. In addition, information and articles from Consumer Reports can be accessed online at www.ConsumerReports.org.