With all the talk of contaminated food pouring in from China and elsewhere, I have to wonder how safe our food supply really is. Let’s face it! It’s not just food coming from outside our borders that contain things not normally considered edible.

There’s mercury and Prozac (yes Prozac) in our fish; hormones in our meat. And what about that old adage, an apple a day keeps the doctor away? Is it really healthy to eat all those apples? We’re not just eating apple with our apples, you know, but a whole array of pesticides and heaven knows what else.

I hate to be a neurotic alarmist about what’s in my food, but when a report from the non-profit Environmental Working Group says that conventionally-grown food really does have a load of pesticides on them it gives pause.

For the record the FDA defines a pesticide thusly:

"The term pesticide includes many kinds of ingredients used in products, such as insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, insect repellants, weed killers, antimicrobials, and swimming pool chemicals, which are designed to prevent, destroy, repel, or reduce pests of any sort."

(I would like to assert that I am not a pest, despite what’s apparently on my food, and what my friends and family may think on occasion.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ran nearly 51,000 tests on 44 fruits and veggies between 2000 and 2004. Their data was compiled by the Environmental Working Group, and showed that conventionally-grown apples ranked second worst for pesticide contamination. 94% of all apples sampled were contaminated with an average of 3 different pesticides, at a total average of almost 1 part per million (ppm).

Potatoes had the highest contamination level – 1.7 ppm on average, with over 80% of the potatoes tested having some detectable levels. I don’t like eating potatoes anyway, so I’m not too non-plused about that. But what about those yummy, yummy peaches we all scoff during the summer if we possibly can?

All I can say is “Put the peach down!”

Our fuzzy favorites tested positive for an average of three different kinds of bug killers totaling more than 1.1 ppm on average. 97% of the peaches sampled were contaminated.

There is some good news for those who have not yet succumbed to eating only organic food. Onions are alright. They showed no contamination. Zip. Avocados and mangoes are OK too. Imported grapes – bad. Domestic grapes – good. And the list goes on. You can get the complete scoop here: http://www.foodnews.org/fulldataset.php

Unfortunately, we don’t really know what the effects are of eating small amounts of pesticide – if you call 1ppm small. The FDA has a clear limit for methyl mercury, which is often found in fish. The agency considers it unsafe to eat anything containing more than 1ppm of that compound.

However, trying to make sense of EPA’s pesticide limits – tolerances and exemptions, as it calls them – is like trying to untangle a swimming pool full of angel hair pasta. According to an April 2007 report “There are more than 1055 active ingredients registered as pesticides, which are formulated into thousands of pesticide products that are available in the marketplace.”

Crikey. It’s enough to put me right off my food!

Despite the lack of clarity on the subject of health effects, there are a number of diseases correlated with chronic low-dose pesticide exposure. They include prostate, colon and breast cancer, and most recently Parkinson’s Disease. Most of these studies included data from known pesticide exposure, which presumably did not include food.

However, in 2006, a British group linked child cancer directly with food-borne pesticides. Contamination is particularly bad for fetuses and children, whose organs and metabolic systems that break down pesticides are still developing.

It’s little wonder that the business of organic food has grown by between 15 – 21% annually from 1997 – 2006. Eating organic really is safer.

But if you don’t want to pay the extra little bit to get largely pesticide-free fruits and veggies, and don’t mind flavoring your food with a pinch of poison, then keep buying the least contaminated conventionally-grown ones. The list includes: eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, bananas, kiwi, asparagus, mango, pineapple, avocado, and onion. But unless you have a death wish, I’d stay away from some favorites, until you buy organic: peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach, potatoes, and… carrots.

I guess Bugs Bunny will be going organic.