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Home >> Pesticides, Hazardous & Toxic Chemicals >> Shoppers Card for Buying Fruits and Vegetables

Shoppers Card for Buying Fruits and Vegetables

Reducing your exposure to pesticide residues: Shopper’s Tips for Buying Fruits & Vegetables

Shoppers CardOne of the Local Hazardous Waste Management Program’s goals is to reduce exposure of vulnerable and traditionally underserved populations to hazardous chemicals. One target population includes infants and children. The intent of the “Shopper’s Tips for Buying Fruits & Vegetables” card is to help parents shop wisely to reduce their infants' and children's exposure to pesticides.

The subject of pesticide residues in or on foods is complex and controversial. Pesticide residues are in many foods that are conventionally grown, and in much lesser amounts in foods grown organically (which may use approved organic pesticides or contain trace amounts of conventional pesticides from the environment). The federal government regulates pesticides to ensure that the U.S. food supply is safe. As new studies on toxicity of pesticides are released or as new analyses point to more vulnerable subsets of the population, especially young children, pesticide tolerances are revised or uses are eliminated completely. This is an ongoing process. Growers and importers must meet current tolerance limits set by the federal government and thus feel that any remaining residues found on their fruits or vegetables are insignificant and safe.

Yet many people remain concerned about exposure to even trace amounts of these pesticides in their foods. They may choose to purchase organically-grown produce when they can, or select organic alternatives to those fruits or vegetables with higher residues or risk. Or they may shop at local farmers’ markets where they know the growers and feel confident that the food they are buying meets their particular needs.

If you are concerned about pesticide residues on fruits & vegetables:

  • Buy organically-grown fruits and vegetables.
  • If you can't afford or find organic fruits and vegetables, buy US grown produce.  Imported produce tends to have higher pesticide levels. 
  • When you buy produce, ask about pesticide use.
  • Buy local; visit Puget Sound Fresh
  • Wash produce with water for 30 seconds.

Why focus on fruits and vegetables?

 The USDA’s pesticide data program focuses on foods consumed by infants and children. Of those foods tested, fruits and vegetables have consistently shown the highest levels of detectable pesticides. Accordingly, we have focused our shopper’s card on providing information about fruits and vegetables.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture analyzes the pesticide residue left on fruits and vegetables annually. The data are used by the USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to assess the safety of food sold in this country and to set regulatory limits on pesticides. Our program uses the federal data to provide general recommendations about foods that tend to have higher amounts of pesticide residues versus those that generally have lower amounts.

Overall, based on USDA data and using US EPA's dietary risk characterizations:

  • Imported fruits and vegetables have higher average pesticide residues than the same types of domestic produce, over many years of USDA testing. Their dietary risk is significantly greater due to the types of pesticides used on imported produce vs. that grown conventionally in the U.S.
  • Fleshy fruits and thin-skinned vegetables are the most likely to have higher pesticide residues in USDA tests of conventionally-grown produce.
  • Thick-skinned fruits and vegetables, or ones with outer leaves that are not consumed, such as bananas, citrus fruits, onions and pineapples, consistently have very low pesticide residues in their edible portions.

Why wash produce for 30 seconds? 

Most nutritionists and public health sources recommend washing foods before preparation or consumption to remove dirt and microbes. In addition, at least two studies have found that rinsing produce under tap water for at least 30 seconds reduces most pesticide residues, and that no significant additional benefit is achieved from using any of the specially-marketed “veggie wash” soaps or other products. A tap water rinse does as well as any other combination of options. 

Studies on rinsing produce:

Sources for the “Shopper’s Tips” card

Our shopper’s card provides Dietary Risk Index scores to indicate average relative levels of pesticide risk for a typical serving of some common conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables. The Dietary Risk Index (DRI) was used by US EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to analyze pesticide risk trends from 1994 – 2003, drawing upon pesticide residue data collected by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program. The OIG report presents DRI scores for both domestically grown and imported fruits and vegetables from two years before the passage of the “Food Quality Protection Act” (FQPA), to eight years after its passage.

Dietary Risk Scores used to develop our shopper’s card are taken from the following report. The ranking of produce on our card is based on aggregate DRI scores from the 2003 data column of the table on page S-7 – S-8.

The Dietary Risk Index was developed in conjunction with an EPA Office of the Inspector General Evaluation report on the effectiveness of the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. One of the main findings highlighted in the OIG Evaluation Report is the shift since the passage of the FQPA in the share of total pesticide dietary risks from domestically grown produce to imported produce. Risks from domestically grown produce have gone down significantly, while risks associated with imported produce have risen appreciably. For example, because of the EPA’s focus on the high-risk organophosphate pesticides since passage of the FQPA in 1996, there have been incremental reductions in the overall use of this class of pesticides. This shift has reduced DRI scores in U.S. grown apples from about 300 in 1994 to around 40 in 2003. This downward trend in domestic use of organophosphate pesticides has likely continued in recent years, whereas reliance on these pesticides has changed little, or increased in some countries abroad.

About the Dietary Risk Index

The DRI score provides a measure of the average relative risks stemming from pesticide residues in a typical serving of food. DRI values are calculated based on the distribution of residue levels found in food, as well as a pesticide’s toxicity, as quantified by the EPA. The DRI used by the OIG focuses on exposure and risk levels for young children as they may be exposed to the greatest amount of pesticides per body weight from their diet.

The DRI is calculated from two variables:

  • Percent Positive” = how frequently a pesticide residue is found on a fruit or vegetable. The USDA’s Pesticide Data Program reports the total number of samples, positive samples, and percent positive for each pesticide-food combination tested in its annual surveys.
  • Chronic Risk Share” = the level of risk associated with the residues of a pesticide found on produce, taking into account the pesticide’s toxicity, the amount of the food item typically eaten by children, and the mean of the residues found in positive samples. The EPA analysis developed the Chronic Risk Share to answer the question “How risky are the residues found in a given food?” It is based on current EPA understanding of each pesticide’s potential toxicity and the acceptable amount of daily exposure to that pesticide for a child.

The basic formula to calculate the DRI score for a given pesticide-food combination is
DRI = (Percent Positive) x (Chronic Risk Share)

The scores used to develop our shopper’s card are the sum of all pesticide residue DRI values found on that type of produce, by the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program.

The table below is reproduced from the EPA Office of the Inspector General’s Dietary Risk Index analysis report. We use this data to create a ranking on our shopper’s card for imported and domestic produce. DRI scores less than 10 were assigned as Lower Risk; scores between 10 and 100 as Moderate Risk; and greater than 100 as Higher Risk.

Aggregate Dietary Risk Index (DRI) Scores for Selected Foods*


Aggregate DRI Score

Oranges - Imported


Oranges - Domestic


Apple Juice - Domestic


Apple Juice - Imported


Spinach - Imported


Carrots - Domestic


Broccoli - Domestic


Cantaloupe - Domestic


Spinach - Domestic


Grapes - Domestic


Potatoes - Imported


Apples - Imported


Carrots - Imported


Cantaloupe - Imported


Apples - Domestic


Peaches - Domestic


Lettuce - Domestic


Broccoli - Imported


Tomatoes - Domestic


Potatoes - Domestic


Cucumbers - Domestic


Green Beans - Imported


Celery - Domestic


Sweet bell peppers - Domestic


Tomatoes - Imported


Celery - Imported


Peaches - Imported


Grapes - Imported


Cucumbers - Imported


Green Beans - Domestic


Sweet bell peppers - Imported


Lettuce - Imported


* Source: US EPA Office of the Inspector General Supplemental Report: “Details on Dietary Risk Data in Support of Report No. 2006-P-00028” (2006), 2003 data column of table on pages S-7 – S-8.

Other Fruits & Vegetables not listed on the card

We recognize that all fruits and vegetables, including some popular Northwest favorites, are not listed on our shopper’s card. The card displays all produce analyzed in EPA’s Office of the Inspector General report published in 2006. In the future, we hope to gain access to similar analysis for additional common fruits and vegetables utilizing data from more recent sampling of produce.

An additional source of information available to the public is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2006 annual report which analyzed pesticide residues on food samples from 12 states, including Washington, as well as imported produce. This report provides more recent data; however U.S. EPA has not yet used these data to revise their Dietary Risk Index analysis.
View the USDA Pesticide Data Program - Annual Summary 2006 (PDF)

USDA has also recently published data from a 2007 survey of pesticide use on apples, organic apples, and cotton in 16 states, including Washington.
View the Agricultural Chemical Usage 2007 Field Crops Summary (PDF)

Information About Organic Produce

The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program has a certification program (external link) for foods grown and sold as “organic.” Organic foods tend to have much lower pesticide residues as federal standards prohibit essentially all synthetic chemical substances on organic farms, including most synthetic pesticides. Many natural substances - such as botanical pesticides, copper fungicides and sulfur - are allowed on organic farms. If an individual is concerned about pesticide residues, he or she might opt to purchase organically-grown foods as one way to lower overall pesticide exposure (external link).

Organic foods often are more expensive in the marketplace. That can present a problem for low-income consumers or others who must stretch their limited food dollars as far as possible. If you can only buy a limited amount of organic produce, buy those fruits and vegetables ranked in the higher risk section on our Shopper’s Card.

There are several levels of USDA organic certification.  The National Organic Program’s five label categories for organic food are:

  1. 100 percent organic – All ingredients and processing aids must be 100% organic.
  2. Organic – At least 95% of ingredients must be organic.
  3. Made with organic ingredients – At least 70% of ingredients must be organic.
  4. Products with less than 70% organic ingredients.
  5. Organic Livestock feed.

Food that is 70% or less organic may be labeled “Organic Claim on the Information Panel Only.” Produce that is transitional to organic cannot use the word “organic” alone. It may state “transitional to organic” if it meets the USDA rules for this transition. To do so requires an inspection and filing process similar to that for certifying organic produce.

Some smaller farms and sustainable growers do not pursue organic certification because it is too costly in time and money for them to participate on an annual basis. They might farm using Integrated Pest Management methods while still retaining some use of less hazardous pesticides. Or some farmers may not see the need for certification if they sell predominantly via local farmer’s markets where they can talk directly with consumers. We encourage you to ask about pesticide use at your local farmer’s market.

External links to information about Certification of Organic Produce:

What’s better, local or organic?

Much debate surrounds food choices these days, without clear resolution. Attention to “food miles” and support for local agriculture are increasing due to concerns about green house gas emissions from long-distance transportation. Our program seeks the right balance between promoting local agriculture AND providing accurate information about options to reduce exposures to pesticides.

For an interesting article on the topic, see “Living well: It’s no simple task settling the local/organic debate” from the July 27, 2008, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Why did we revise our shopper’s card?

Our program produced a shopper’s card in 2006, and revised it in 2007. For our latest revision in August 2008, we have developed a new and updated card dedicated to fruits and vegetables and how to make decisions to reduce pesticide exposure if you are concerned about this issue. We decided to use the U.S. EPA’s “Dietary Risk Index” as a better way to summarize potential risk from exposure to pesticide residues on produce than our previous summary which was based purely on detections of pesticide residues. We also provide some general recommendations regarding buying organic, buying local, and washing all produce thoroughly.

The subject of pesticide residues in or on foods is complex and not easily summarized into a small shopper’s card. We are trying to provide the best information to those who are concerned about pesticide residues, in a focused, useful format. We plan to make further refinements as additional information and analysis become available.

Your comments are welcome. Send to:

Additional Resources:

Acknowledgement is given to Dr. Charles Benbrook of Troy, Oregon for his consultation regarding the specifics of the Dietary Risk Index described in this material and used to develop our shopper’s card. Dr. Benbrook was the contractor for the Dietary Risk Index analysis used by the U.S. EPA’s Office of the Inspector General.