When it comes to food safety, there are some things we can control, and others we can’t.
As reported by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, health experts agree that North Americans (and by extension, all people who consume the typical SAD diet (the Standard American Diet)) consume too few fruits and vegetables for “optimal health.” Latin America and consumers of this “westernized” diet are suffering the health consequences of overweight and obesity.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that the average adult eating a 2,000 calorie diet consume at least 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit daily.
Although most people would say that they’d prefer to only eat organically-grown produce (grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and chemicals), everyone should be eating more produce, even if it’s not “organic” according to health experts. As reported, “The benefits of eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables outweigh the potential risks of exposure to minuscule residues of the synthetic pesticides used.”
According to the USDA, “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. The organic standards describe the specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled USDA organic.
Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.”
What about here in Azuay, or throughout Ecuador? I reached out to Rob Gray, owner of the Gran Roca sustainable farm out in the Yunguilla Valley. [According to National Geographic, sustainable farmers, “Minimize tilling and water use, encourage healthy soil by planting fields with different crops year after year and integrating croplands with livestock grazing, and avoid pesticide use by nurturing the presence of organisms that control crop-destroying pests.”]
Rob said, “After purchasing the Gran Roca property, I visited several Ag (Agricultural) stores and was blown away by the shelves upon shelves of chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides — some that have been outlawed in the U.S. and Europe. We visited the largest Ag store in Cuenca and asked, “Do you have any products for organic growers?” we were told, “No. Nada.”
“Now, to be clear, a few farms in Ecuador are Certified Organic and are certified by international companies from the U.S. and Europe, such as the USDA Certified Organic certification. When I questioned the government agency, Agrocalidad, about Organic Certification, they indicated to me that there were no Certified Organic Farms in the Azuay Province. Most are actually up in the Quito area.
“So, what gives? I consistently see produce and meat vendors selling their products as “organic” but here is why we are so very skeptical.
“I believe that I have visited at least 100 farms in Ecuador, and at every farm where I’ve asked the question, “Do you use chemicals on your farm?” I hear the same emphatic denial. However, after my friend and I speak with the farmer for a while, discussing certain pests and/or fungus, the truth (eventually) comes out. Farmers in Ecuador will not risk losing a crop and will use whatever means necessary to save it. Once the cat is out of the bag, we hear the usual disclaimer, “Well, we don’t use the really bad chemicals like the guys down the road.” And, of course, this is not organic farming, nor is it close. In the U.S.A., any farm found to breaking the rules would be subject to a three-year suspension of its certification. In Ecuador, there appears to be little to no regulation of what local farmers can say and it appears many use chemicals and systems harmful to the land, without consequences.
“In my experience, the bottom line is that in Azuay and surrounding areas you will see produce and meats labeled “organic” and there is little to no assurance of the validity of this label. There is also a very good chance that vendors who claim that their produce and meats are organic are not the growers, and could not possibly know how the food was grown/produced. So, be…very…skeptical.”
More to know about organic in Ecuador
I researched Ecuador USDA Certified Organic farms — there are five in the Azuay province — two cacao, one cocoa, and two bananas. Read more from the USDA Organic Integrity Database.
Here in Cuenca, you will find a number of USDA Certified Organic foods in supermercados like Supermaxi and Coral. Some local tiendas like Nectar on Benigno Malo, and Khatu on Hermano Miguel maintain a close relationship with their vendors and sell locally grown produce, which they say is grown without pesticides and herbicides. Gran Roca sells sustainably grown produce, fresh eggs and chickens, and meats too.
My friend Martha Mays is featured in a walking tour of a “certified organic” market called Biocentro Agroecológico located off Avenida Loja near the El Tiempo printing presses. A column from El Tiempo describes this initiative to promote sustainable agriculture in and around Cuenca.
Please feel free to post your favorite vendors and purchase points for sustainable produce in the comments below.
Conventional farmers around the world raise crops similarly, so you might choose fruits and vegetables based on what the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends.
Each year the EWG ranks fruits and vegetables from most to least contaminated, based on large-scale testing by the USDA and the FDA of both domestic and imported samples.
Berkeley reports, “There are stark differences among various types of produce” in terms of their pesticide residues. The 2018 list includes 47 types of produce, with the 12 most-contaminated ones deemed the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and the 15 with the lowest pesticide loads called the ‘Clean Fifteen’. To test, all samples were rinsed (under cold running water for 15 to 20 seconds without the use of soaps or special washes) or peeled, just as you would (or should) do at home. It is noted that while washing and peeling reduce pesticide residues, it does not eliminate them all (some migrate below the surface).
They write, “Buying organic does not guarantee that your produce is 100-percent free of pesticides since “organic” is a production term and does not mean “pesticide-free.” Some organic produce may have residues of botanical pesticides (presumably safer) and of several synthetic pesticides allowed in organic production, or it may be contaminated due to pesticide drift from non-organic farms onto organic fields—though levels overall are lower than in conventional produce.”
The Dirty Dozen: More than 200 pesticides or pesticide breakdown products were detected, and almost 70 percent had residues of at least one pesticide.
- Sweet bell peppers
The Clean Fifteen
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melon
The EWG suggests that by opting for organic versions of fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen list and choosing conventionally grown produce on the Clean Fifteen list, you can have the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables while limiting your exposure to pesticides. Berkely suggests buying organic also “sends a message that you support environmentally friendly farming practices that minimize soil erosion, safeguard workers, and protect water quality and wildlife.”
To find out how the produce was tested and get the full list, go to EWG’s 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Finally, wash ALL raw fruits and vegetables very well before you peel, cut, eat, or cook with them. Washing reduces the bacteria that may be present on fresh produce.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension advises:
- Wash your hands with hot soapy water before and after preparing food.
- Clean your countertop, cutting boards, and utensils after peeling produce and before cutting and chopping. Bacteria from the outside of raw produce can be transferred to the inside when it is cut or peeled. Wash kitchen surfaces and utensils with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item.
- Do not wash produce with soaps or detergents.
- Use clean potable cold water to wash items.
- For produce with thick skin, use a vegetable brush to help wash away hard-to-remove microbes.
- Produce with a lot of nooks and crannies like cauliflower, broccoli or lettuce should be soaked for 1 to 2 minutes in cold clean water.
- Some produce such as raspberries should not be soaked in water. Put fragile produce in a colander and spray it with distilled water.
- After washing, dry with a clean paper towel. This can remove more bacteria.
- Eating on the run? Fill a spray bottle with distilled water and use it to wash apples and other fruits.
- Don’t forget that homegrown, farmers market, and grocery store fruits and vegetables should also be well washed.
- Do not rewash packaged products labeled “ready-to-eat,” “washed” or “triple washed.”
- Once cut or peeled, refrigerate as soon as possible at 40ºF or below.
- Do not purchase cut produce that is not refrigerated.
Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally — a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to her – SusanTheDietitian@gmail.com
El Tiempo – Diario de Cuenca. Ferias agroecológicas, una alternative de alimentación sana. Agro-ecological fairs, a healthy diet alternative.
NationalGeographic.com. Sustainable Agriculture.
UC Berkeley School of Public Health. Health & Wellness Alerts. Pesticide Contamination: what you should know before you buy produce.
United States Department of Agriculture. Organic Standards.
University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Best ways to wash fruits and vegetables.