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Pesticides Detected In 7 Out Of 10 Fruits & Vegetables | Healing Talks
Published On: Sun, Aug 1st, 2010

Pesticides Detected In 7 Out Of 10 Fruits & Vegetables


Pesticides detected in

7 out of 10

fruits & vegetables

Nathan Batalion, Global Health Activist, Healingtalks Editor

(Healingtalks) USDA’s most recent report of produce testing reveals widespread pesticide contamination on popular fruits and vegetables (USDA 2008):

  • USDA found one or more pesticides on 70.3% of samples tested.
  • The agency found a mixture of between 5 and 13 different pesticide residues tainting one of every 10 samples (10.4%) of fruit or vegetable analyzed.

Chemical farming industry claims

In contrast, chemical farming interests have claimed that 98% of fresh fruits and vegetables tested have no detectable residues. They cite the same USDA testing initiative, the Pesticide Data Program (Blythe 2010). We wish their claim were true. In fact, the USDA reports that pesticide contamination is 35 times more frequent than the industry asserts.

Deceptive statistics

The industry’s “mistake” stems from their lumping together all individual USDA analyses without taking into account the agency’s study design. USDA tests each fruit and vegetable sample for up to hundreds of chemicals, but most of these compounds are not approved for use on the particular crop being tested, and therefore most are not found. So while 98 percent of tests for individual chemicals are returned from the laboratory as “non-detects,” most of the actual fruit and vegetable samples are found to be contaminated: USDA detected one or more pesticides in 7 of every 10 samples analyzed in 2008, the most recent data reported by the agency.

Extent of the pollution

All told, EWG analyses show that since 2001 the USDA has detected 215 different pesticides in fresh fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S., including 35 pesticides that each pollute at least 15 types of produce, like apples, grapes, strawberries, sweet corn and other favorites of children.

The bottom line: Outside of the growing organic food industry – and notwithstanding the chemical farming industry’s mistaken claims to the contrary – if you eat in America, you eat pesticides.

95.6%  pollution of our bodies

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detected pesticides in blood and urine samples from 95.6 percent of more than 5,000 Americans tested in the agency’s national biomonitoring program (CDC 2009).

Majority carry multiple chemical traces in bloodstream

In their nationally representative study of Americans age 6 and older, CDC reported levels of 21 chemical biomarkers corresponding to 28 pesticides that can contaminate fresh fruits and vegetables (at an upper allowable limit called the “tolerance”), according to an EWG analysis of CDC data and EPA tolerance limits. More than sixty percent of Americans tested carried in their bodies seven or more of these pesticides and pesticide metabolites on the single day they provided samples to CDC.


  • CDC has tested Americans for 4 pesticides and 17 pesticides metabolites (denoted with *), all corresponding to pesticides with tolerances in produce): diethyldithiophosphate*, diethylphosphate*, diethylthiophosphate*, dimethyldithiophosphate*, dimethylphosphate*, dimethylthiophosphate*, 2,4-D, acetochlor mercapturate*, atrazine mercapturate*, carbaryl, metolachlor mercapturate*, o-phenyl phenol, 3-phenoxybenzoic acid*, 4-fluoro-3-phenoxybenzoic acid*, cis-3-(2,2-dichlorovinyl)-2,2-dimethylcyclopropane carboxylic acid*, cis-3-(2,2-dibromovinyl)-2,2-dimethylcyclopropane carboxylic acid*, trans-3-(2,2-dichlorovinyl)-2,2-dimethylcyclopropane carboxylic acid*, 3,5,6-trichloropyridinol*, 2-(diethylamino)-6-methylpyrimidin-4-ol/one*, malathion diacid*, para-nitrophenol*.
  • CDC has targeted 28 pesticides with established residue tolerances on produce: 2,4-D, acetochlor, atrazine, azinphos methyl, carbaryl, chlorpyrifos, chlorpyrifos methyl, cyfluthrin, cyhalothrin, cypermethrin, deltamethrin, diazinon, dichlorvos, dicrotophos, dimethoate, fenpropathrin, malathion, methidathion, methyl parathion, metolachlor, naled, o-phenyl phenol, permethrin, phorate, pirimiphos-methyl, terbufos, tralomethrin, trichlorfon.

Vast majority of pesticides never tested on people

Agribusiness and pesticide companies are not required to test for their chemicals in people, not even for compounds that widely contaminate the food supply. The federal government’s national biomonitoring program, run by the CDC, has likely only scratched the surface of the full burden of pesticide pollution in people. EWG analysis shows that:

  • • The CDC has tested Americans for only 32 of the 215 pesticides  found overall on fresh fruits and vegetables since 2001 (not all of these have established residue tolerances on produce).
  • The agency has tested Americans for only 9 of the 35 pesticides found on the greatest number of different fruits and vegetables (at least 15 types each).
  • And it has tested for none of the 8 most commonly detected pesticides on fruits and vegetables (compounds tested more than 100 times since 2001, with an overall detection rate of at least 10 percent). These include pesticides found in apples, bananas, strawberries, and other widely consumed favorites.

Little known testing of safety and industry dies problems

Even when government research uncovers wide-scale pesticide pollution in body tissues of Americans, follow-up studies are not required or conducted to understand the implications of the exposures.

Industrial produce operators and pesticide interests have asserted that “There are no studies that specifically link pesticide residues in the diet with health effects.” Such studies are not required. The industry has confused an absence of data with proof of safety. They are two vastly different things.

Much evidence of harm

Shoppers’ increasingly common decisions to avoid pesticides or to choose organics are backed by an extensive body of evidence demonstrating that pesticides harm workers, damage the environment, and demonstrate toxicity to laboratory animals. Pesticides are designed to be biologically active; they are designed to kill living organisms. EPA is directed to set standards for pesticides in food that allow a sufficient margin of safety between human exposures and amounts known to be harmful.

But the complexity of people’s diets, the variation in pesticide residues on foods, and the difficulty sorting out effects of pesticide mixtures from additional lifestyle, genetic and environmental factors contributing to diseases like cancer, birth defects, and behavioral problems, all make it difficult to be certain of the risks of pesticides in the diet.

Organophosphates (OPs)

Best studied are a group of neurotoxic pesticides known as organophosphates (OPs). Until strict cut-backs in their use in 2000 over health concerns, these chemicals were some of the most common pesticides in agriculture, accounting for about half of all insecticides used in the U.S. in 1999 (EPA 1999). Individual OP pesticides share a common chemical structure and toxic mechanism in the body. They damage nervous system function by blocking acetylcholinesterase. This enzyme is responsible for ending nerve cells firing—when blocked nerve cells fire continuously, acute poisoning or long-term nerve damage can result. Children are believed to be at higher risk for permanent effects from OP exposures, though neurotoxins can be harmful to people of any age.

Studies of OPs

  • EPA estimates that 40 percent of children tested in CDC’s national biomonitoring study from 1999 to 2002 had amounts of OPs in their bodies at levels exceeding standard margins of safety, relative to levels shown to be harmful in laboratory studies (Paynes-Sturges 2009)
  • In May 2010 researchers at Harvard University published research showing increased risk for ADHD in American children exposed to typical levels of OPs.
  • Scientists analyzed the CDC’s biomonitoring data on OP pesticide exposure for 1,139 children 8 to 15 years old, tested from 2000 to 2004 (Bouchard 2010). They found that every 10-fold increase in dimethyl alkylphosphate (DMAP), an OP metabolite in the body, corresponded to a 55 to 72 percent increase in the odds of ADHD diagnosis. Effects of OPs were most pronounced among children with the hyperactive/impulsive subtype rather than a primarily inattentive ADHD. Because the NHANES study is carefully designed to be a representative sample of Americans, these results are considered generalizable to all American children.

The validity of the Harvard study is bolstered by studies of children more intensely exposed to OP pesticides.

  • Two studies link prenatal OP exposures to increased risk of pervasive developmental disorders (Bouchard 2010 citing Rauh 2006, Eskenazi 2007).
  • Minority children residing in New York City were at greater risk of attention problems, ADHD and pervasive developmental disorder if they had been born with greater concentrations of chlorpyrifos during pregnancy, as measured by umbilical cord blood concentrations at birth (Rauh 2006). New York City was previously an area of intense chlorpyrifos use. Between 72 and 85 percent of participants were exposed to this chemical in their homes during pregnancy, with half using higher risk applications.
  • Children primarily from farmworker families in the Salinas Valley of California performed more poorly on standardized neurobehavioral tests when they were carried residues of dialkyl phosphates (OP metabolites) in their bodies in utero or during early life (Eskenazi 2007).
  • Post-natal exposures to OPs are associated with behavioral problems, pervasive developmental disorder, poorer short-term memory and longer reaction times in studies of children living in agricultural regions of Ecuador and the United States (Eskenazi 2007, and Bouchard 2010 citing Grandjean 2006, Ruckart 2004, Rohlman 2005).

More evidence of harm to children

Evidence that everyday exposure to organophosphates may cause permanent effects on children’s brain and behavior is a sobering reminder of the need to safeguard children from harmful chemicals in their diets. Children are at increased risk for high OP exposure due to greater intake of fruits and vegetables than adults (when adjusting for their small body size) and because behaviors and increased hand-to-mouth activity lead to greater ingestion of contaminated dirt and dust. Studies in an agricultural region of California have shown that infants are more at risk to OP toxicity than older children and adults, because their detoxification systems for OPs are less developed. Furthermore, people with lower activity of a detoxifying enzyme known as PON1 are more susceptible to OP toxicity, with the most sensitive newborn 65 to 130 times more affected than the least sensitive adult (Furlong 2006, Holland 2006).

A 1993 report by the National Academy of Sciences evaluated children’s exposures to pesticides on foods and concluded that “infants and children differ both qualitatively and quantitatively from adults in their exposure to pesticide residues in foods” and that some children exceeded safe levels of pesticides in their diets (NAS 1993). Furthermore NAS clarifies that in addition to exposures from multiple foods, safety levels for pesticides account for drinking water contamination and household pesticides. The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 mandated that EPA systematically review pesticide exposures and restrict the most harmful uses. Subsequent studies provide strong evidence that these policies, and shopper’s efforts to avoid contaminated produce are well justified.

Over the past 15 years EPA eliminated some major uses of OPs that accounted for the highest exposures in children, including home insecticides and some food uses, but children continue to be exposed to OPs that contaminate common foods.

Recently, researchers from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia released findings on body burden levels of OPs in children, and reported that “this study demonstrate that dietary intake of OP pesticides represents the major source of exposure in young children” (Lu 2008).

Questions to be asked and answered

Industry groups making claims of safety should be asked if they have tested to learn how much of their chemicals end up in people, including in cord blood, where pollution attests to in utero exposures during especially vulnerable times. They should also be asked what if any research they or others have conducted to discern potential health problems in children and other vulnerable populations exposed to higher but still “normal” amounts of their products.

Imported fruits and vegetables

Dr. Ryan Galt of UC Davis interviewed 148 vegetable farmers in Costa Rica to learn which pesticides they used on squash and chayote (another type of squash) grown for export to the United States. He found that 12 of 15 pesticides used on squash, and 5 of 47 on chayote, are not registered for use on foods in the U.S. His analysis showed that 71% of the chemicals used on squash and 61% used on chayote are not included in FDA inspection tests and would not, therefore, be found in agency tests of imports (Galt 2009).

Some of the pesticides FDA does not target, like n-methyl carbamates, are highly toxic and have caused consumer poisonings or previous residue violations for this crop. This example is especially sobering given that Costa Rican imports are the most more heavily tested of any exporting nation, and the country has a better than average compliance rate among importing nations, signaling the potential for more serious problems for produce imported from other nations.

Among the problems uncovered by Galt: U.S. agencies make little effort to determine which pesticides are being used abroad, and do not adequately disseminate U.S. pesticide guidelines to foreign operators. Also, Costa Rican farmers have little access to information about U.S. pesticide standards, and the data is made available only in English, not Spanish. Furthermore, USDA does not monitor for residues of several toxic classes of pesticides because of analytical challenges, including dithiocarbamates, azoles and benzimidazoles (Galt 2009). Finally, price volatility contributes to a pressure on farmers to keep production prices as low as possible, which shifts pesticide applications to broad-scale, and often more environmentally persistent pesticides (Galt 2009).

All this means that a produce eater could be swallowing a mouthful of food tainted with pesticides not approved for use or present at levels above the legal limit, undetectable to the human eye, nose, or tastebuds – as well as to federal health inspectors.

Even with inefficient testing, many produce tests show violations

Between 1996 and 2006, 1.6% of domestic crops violated pesticide safety standards in FDA inspections, while imported crops earned violations at 2.25 times that rate (FDA 2008). FDA inspectors target suspected problems, but still inspect just a small fraction of produce on the market, and test for just a fraction of pesticides that could contaminate it. Many violating products likely make it to the produce aisle and the kitchen.

What’s considered truly safe?

The 1996 Food Quality Protection Act requires EPA to review the safety of each particular use of each agricultural pesticide at least once every 15 years. As of November 2009 EPA has reviewed 214 pesticide chemicals and 22,122 individual pesticide-crop combinations. These reviews have led to 3,885 products re-registered, 1,139 amended registrations, 6,224 cancellations, and 14 suspensions (EPA OIG 2010). The Agency’s goal is to complete 1,000 reregistration actions each year and to complete a review of all current pesticide registrations by 2014.

EPA’s actions under FQPA have been credited for major reductions in pesticide risks, particularly those targeting foods most commonly eaten by children. EPA’s Office of Inspector General estimates that specific actions on methyl parathion, chlorpyrifos and diazinon reduced the total pesticide dietary risk by 98 percent for “high-risk” domestic crops (EPA OIG 2006), particularly those eaten often by young children.

But every year EPA’s new assessments lead to restrictions in other uses of pesticides that the agency’s reviews of the latest science find can lead to unsafe exposures. Chemical agribusiness interests might assert that pesticides in food are perfectly safe, but the reality is that many pesticide uses that are on the books as safe today will be found unsafe by EPA in the future, based on new science, new understandings about the mechanisms by which pesticides can harm the human body, or strengthened policies for health protection within the agency itself.

Some major public health successes achieved by EPA since 1996 include the following restrictions and bans of pesticide uses previously deemed safe:

  • EPA and manufacturers agreed to cancel some uses of methyl parathion—a compound considered to be the most toxic OP—after a risk assessment revealed that current registrations were not safe for any population. EPA cancelled about 10% of uses to reduce dietary risks, including an estimated 90 percent reduction in dietary risks to children (dropping exposures to an estimated 75% of the target maximum) (EPA 2006).
  • EPA also phased out most non-agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos (Dursban) and put in place restrictions on its use for tomatoes and apples (for application post-bloom). The agency took action despite objection from Dow Argosciences Mexico, Del Monte Fresh Produce Company and other manufacturers that agricultural restrictions would be economically burdensome due to chlorpyrifos’ low cost (EPA 2008).
  • EPA cancelled diazinon use on about 20 different crops, primarily vegetables (EPA 2007).

These were all significant safety improvements that helped reduce dietary exposures to pesticides that EPA found put children or Americans at large at risk. But such progress isn’t always the case. For example, EPA found the neurotoxic pesticide called carbofuran too toxic to be used safety in agriculture, but the agency’s June 2005 proposed restrictions met with strong objections from the pesticide manufacturer FMC and other industrial interests, spurring a 4.5-year delay. EPA finalized their proposed restrictions in December 2009. But now FMC and others have filed suit in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, requesting that the court stay the agency’s decision in an expedited review (EPA 2009b).

In recent years Americans have eaten at least 8 kinds of fruits and vegetables contaminated with carbofuran, including asparagus, cantaloupe, cucumbers, green beans, potatoes, sweet bell peppers, summer squash, and watermelon, according to USDA tests conducted from 2001 through 2008.

“Safer” generations of pesticides may not be so safe.

Many toxic organophosphate and carbamate pesticides now illegal for use on some fruits and vegetables have been replaced by chemicals called pyrethroids and neonicotinoids, both of which claim emerging safety concerns.

Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticides similar to nicotine. They are the fastest growing class of insecticides, more environmentally persistent than other common insecticides but used in lower amounts. Early studies provided evidence that humans may be partially protected from neonicotinoid toxicity because of the poor permeability of the blood-brain barrier to these compounds (Vale 2009).

Recently France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia have restricted neonicotinoid uses for seed treatment because in miniscule quantities the compounds are toxic to honey bees, and are implicated in global die-off of these vital plant pollinators (EPA 2010). Neonicotinoids are persistent on crops and accumulate in pollen and nectar of treated plants. EPA plans to thoroughly evaluate this class of chemicals during FY 2012 (EPA 2010).

In the meantime, EPA has approved 6 neonicotinoids for food uses: imidacloprid, acetamiprid, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin and dinotefuran.

The EU and Japan have also set food tolerances, and high throughput methods are still being developed to allow regulators to easily screen for residues in food. Uses on crops, insects and pet treatments are all potential sources of neonicotinoid exposure for people. USDA produce testing shows that neonicotinyls now widely contaminate produce, including the pesticide imidacloprid in 23 kinds of fruits and vegetables, like apples, peaches, broccoli and blueberries.

Studies raise concerns that neonicotinoid exposures during gestation and early life may permanently alter nervous system functioning. Rats tested with a single large dose of imidacloprid on during pregnancy exhibited changes to nervous system activity and sensorimotor impairment at post-natal day 30 (corresponding to early adolescence in a human). The treated animals had increased nervous system enzyme activity in the brain and blood plasma. The authors concluded that treated animals had significant neurobehavioral deficits that may have long-term adverse health effects (Abou-Donia 2008).

Based on concerns with the chemicals’ toxicity to honey bees, the human brain, and other biological systems, EPA’s upcoming, 2012 review of these compounds may well result in actions to reduce agricultural uses and dietary exposures for this toxic class of pesticides currently on the books as “safe.”

Working to reduce pesticide use

Some states are working to reduce pesticide use while the federal government systematically chips away at the highest risk uses, tightening food safety standards over time.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation routinely advertises its successes, noting in 2008, for instance, that the “Use of most pesticide categories decreased from 2007 to 2008… [and] chemicals classified as reproductive toxins decreased in pounds applied from 2007 to 2008 (down 1.7 million pounds or 10 percent) and decreased in acres treated” (CA DPR 2008).

Health agencies have been concerned about pesticide toxicity and have monitored residues in food since at least the early 1900s. The issue was first raised in the United States when a city health inspector in Boston analyzed fruit stand pears and determined that the white substance coating the fruit was arsenic (CA DPR 2001). In the 1920s reported illnesses and even seizures from contaminated fruit raised widespread public concerns about arsenic residues on produce.

In Britain there were similar poisoning episodes, including one in 1900 in which 70 people died and 6,000 were sickened. In 1925 Britain warned consumers of arsenic on foreign produce imports, which had a major effect on California fruit exports. California passed the Chemical Spray Residue Act in 1926 and the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry set federal tolerances in 1927. California and the Federal government have both been monitoring pesticide levels on produce since that time.

There should be neither misunderstanding nor ill feeling if shippers everywhere met spray residue regulations, and it cannot be too strongly stated that it is economically entirely practicable to meet them. – 1938 Department annual report (CA DRP 2001).

Pro-health measures in the nation’s 1996 food safety law were gutted

The safety net cast by the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) is one of the strongest of all U.S. public health laws. It requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set health-based standards for pesticides in food based on consideration of all sources of exposure (water, indoor air, and food, for example), cumulative risks from pesticides that harm the body additively or synergistically, and protection of infants, children and others most vulnerable to health problems from industrial chemical exposures.

But agribusiness and pesticide companies have worked to weaken key protections in the law (Hornstein 2007). The American Crop Protection Association launched a lobbying campaign to overturn EPA’s decision to apply an additional 10-fold safety factor to food standards in order to better protect children, as required under FQPA. They succeeded, and EPA now rarely applies this protection for children, using vague discretionary authority included in FQPA as justification.

When EPA’s Office of Research and Development “strongly recommended” that the agency require pesticide companies to conduct a powerful, sensitive Developmental Neurotoxicity Study (DNS), industry lobbied against the proposal and, again, won, with claims that the tests were difficult and expensive. The cost to children’s health from that decision may never be fully known.

Safely eating more fruits and vegetables

According to USDA data on how much produce people eat, fruit and vegetable consumption has remained fairly constant in recent years (ERS 2010). For instance, Americans ate an average of 100.42 pounds of fresh fruit each in 1997, and 100.21 pounds in 2007, the latest year of record. The high and low ranged from 107.43 to 97.40 pounds of fruit per capita, in 1999 and 2001, respectively, and has remained relatively constant overall since 1997.

This flat trend worries nutritionists, who recommend that adults and children consume at least two servings of fruits and three servings of vegetables daily (CDC 2009). CDC reports that this advice is ignored: Less than one third of adults meet the current guidelines. Even more concerning, among high school students surveyed, only about 1 in 3 ate the recommended number of fruits, and less than 1 in 5 ate the recommended vegetable amounts (CDC 2009).

The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Overall, eating conventionally grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all. But EWG’s Shopper’s Guide can help reduce exposures to pesticides as much as possible for people wisely seeking to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Using EWG’s Shopper’s Guide:

The 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables (the “Dirty Dozen”) are contaminated with an average of 10 different pesticides, with many tainting more than one type of produce. In contrast, the “Clean 15,” the 15 least contaminated fruits and vegetables contain an average of less than 2.

Eating organic food lowers pesticide body burdens as well.

Concentrations of OP pesticides, including chlorpyrifos and malathion, in elementary school-age children’s bodies peaked during seasons that they ate the most produce. Conversely, exposures fell to non-detectable levels in just 5 days, when they switched from a conventional diet to eating exclusively organic foods (Lu 2006, 2008).

More on EWG’s Shopper’s Guide

According to survey results from the Food Marketing Institute, concern over bacterial contamination is the top reason people give for stopping their purchases of certain food items (Sloan 2010). Worries over pesticide contamination fall below product tampering and bovine spongiform encephalopathy as motivators for not buying food.

These and other safety issues surface every year from a food industry that is increasingly global, factory-scale, genetically modified, chemical-dependent, and overseen by federal agencies perpetually strained for resources.

Shoppers who know the data behind the worries can make the best choices – for this reason, EWG provides the Shoppers Guide to Produce, a simple list of the fruits and vegetables that, when grown conventionally, tend to be highest or lowest in pesticide contamination, according to EWG’s assessment of 6.7 million tests of the 49 most commonly consumed fruits and vegetables in the American diet.

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  • USDA. 2008. Pesticide Data Program: Annual Summary, Calendar Year 2008. United States Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Marketing Service. December 2009. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5081750
  • Vale, JA. 2008. Poisoning Due to Neonicotinoid Insecticides. Clinical Toxicology. 46(5): 404.

The Full List: 49 Fruits and Veggies

Rank Fruit or Veggie
1 (Best) Onions
2 Avocado
3 Sweet Corn (Frozen)
4 Pineapples
5 Mango (Subtropical and Tropical)
6 Sweet Peas (Frozen)
7 Asparagus
8 Kiwi Fruit (Subtropical and Tropical)
9 Cabbage
10 Eggplant
11 Cantaloupe (Domestic)
12 Watermelon
13 Grapefruit
14 Sweet Potatoes
15 Honeydew Melon
16 Plums (Domestic)
17 Cranberries
18 Winter Squash
19 Broccoli
20 Bananas
21 Tomatoes
22 Cauliflower
23 Cucumbers (Domestic)
24 Cantaloupe (Imported)
25 Grapes (Domestic)
26 Oranges
27 Red Raspberries
28 Hot Peppers
29 Green Beans (Imported)
30 Cucumbers (Imported)
31 Summer Squash
32 Plums (Imported)
33 Pears
34 Green Beans (Domestic)
35 Carrots
36 Blueberries (Imported)
37 Lettuce
38 Grapes (Imported)
39 Potatoes
40 Kale / Collard Greens
41 Cherries
42 Spinach
43 Sweet Bell Peppers
44 Nectarines
45 Blueberries (Domestic)
46 Apples
47 Strawberries
48 Peaches
49 (Worst) Celery


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