The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) released its latest summary of the Pesticide Data Program (PDP) last month.  In its 21st annual summary of the program, the AMS stated that for the calendar year 2011 overall pesticide residues found on foods tested were below the maximum legal residue levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect consumers and workers from exposure to pesticides. In plain terms, the AMS stated in its report:  “The data reported by PDP corroborate that residues found in fruit and vegetables are at levels that do not pose risk to consumer health.” According to the report, in 2011 11,894 food samples were tested by PDP; 32 samples (0.27 percent) exceeded the pesticide residue tolerance level set by the EPA and 399 samples (3.4 percent) were found to have residues with no established tolerance level.  Of the 32 samples with residue levels exceeding established tolerance levels, 25 were imported and 7 were domestic.  Of the 399 samples that tested positive for residues with no established tolerance, 280 were imported, 115 were domestic and 4 were of unknown origin. The PDP sampling and testing program operations are carried out with the support of 13 states:  California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.  Testing occurs at both state laboratories and at the AMS National Science Laboratory and the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration Laboratory. While it is not designed for enforcement of tolerances, PDP informs the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the EPA if residues exceeding the tolerance are detected or if no EPA residue tolerance has been established for a residue found. Fresh and processed fruit and vegetables made up 82.3 percent of total samples tested in 2011.  The AMS estimated that 72.7 percent of samples were from U.S. sources, 22.8 percent were imports, 2.8 percent were of mixed origin and 0.7 percent were of unknown origin.  Those foods included: baby food (green beans, pears and sweet potatoes), canned beets, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, orange juice, papayas, plums, snap peas, canned and frozen spinach, sweet bell peppers, tangerines and winter squash. Commodities were also tested.  Samples are collected close to the point of consumption and are prepared with a process assigned to emulate consumer practices. Drinking water samples collected at water treatment facilities in 3 states and from private domestic wells and school or childcare facilities showed low levels of detectable residues.  Residues found in drinking water were found in both drinking water and groundwater.  None exceeded established maximum Contaminant Levels, Health Advisories, Human Health Benchmarks for Pesticides, or Freshwater Aquatic Organism criteria. The PDP was initiated in 1991, and plays an important role in the implementation of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, which directs the Secretary of Agriculture to collect pesticide residue data on foods that are highly consumed–particularly by infants and children.  Those foods include both domestic and imported canned and fresh vegetables, soybeans, eggs, dairy products and water.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses PDP data in its verification process to ensure all sources of exposure to pesticides meet the safety standards set forth in the Act. Reports from previous years can be found on the AMS website.

  • farmber

    Yup — toxic pesticides seem to be within the industry-established contamination tolerances embraced by (a toothless) EPA. What a relief! But it’s a different story in Europe, however, where many tolerance levels are set much lower. Hmmmm…. why is that exactly? maybe Americans would like to see some health precautions as well, instead of industry running the show.

    And the US tolerances are based on full adult doses. Effects on vulnerable children and elders are just not in the numbers. And further there’s no toxicity information of how the chemical soup of all these pesticides combine and become more potent in our daily diets. 

    Finally organic agriculture demonstrates that our food can be (and is) grown without using these toxic chemicals at all. 17 different pesticides used to grow cilanto alone? What on earth for? (oh…. profits….)

  • Jo

    @farmber You seem to be ignorant of the fact that also in organic agriculture toxic pesticides are used. (True, modern, well-researched, comprehensively tested, synthetic, pesticides are excluded, though.) However, the organic premise that whatever my grandparents ate must be good seems a bit naive… (Or why is life expectancy rising throughout the world?) These “organic” pesticides can be just as toxic and bad for your health and the environment as any of the modern ones… And as to the European tolerance levels, quite a bit of simply represents non-tariff barriers to trade to keep out cheaper crops from poorer countries where farmers can produce at lower prices but may have more difficulties adhering to overly strict pesticide requirements. 

    • farmber

      Hi Jo — organic farms have to deal with pests just as conventional farms do. The difference is how they do it. 

      Those highly toxic synthetic pesticide formulations are indiscriminate killers that also obliterate the beneficial insects that are keeping other pest populations in check — requiring more chemicals with greater toxicity. Those nerve agents, organophosphates, etc. etc. are completely prohibited for use by organic farmers — who instead rely on modern, state-of-the-art integrated biocontrol methods and promoting habitat for beneficials via crop rotations, soil-building and other practices that build biodiversity, not destroy it. 

      The fact is organic agriculture can and does produce food without having to use these highly toxic substances. Thankfully eaters have a choice.

    • Michael Bulger

      Jo, under  USDA organic rules, certified products must be grown without pesticides unless the farmer has demonstrated they are the last option. Additionally, what pesticides are approved have been scrutinized for their potentially negative effects, from production to application to consumption. These reviews are supposed to operate with a much more cautious approach than reviews of conventional pesticides. 

      The result is a national list of approved substances that restricts what pesticides can be approved by certifiers for use on farms. These restrictions, and the fact that organic farmers are required to employ other means to control pests, results in significantly less pesticides being used. This is also why product testing consistently shows many times fewer residues of pesticides on certified organic food. (And a portion of this residue is the result of drift from neighboring fields).

      I’d be happy to explain more about the organic agriculture.

  • mdolan

    Consumers absolutely  have a choice to buy and eat either conventional or organic fruits and vegetables.  Most importantly, health experts around the world agree that people should eat more of both and that both are very safe.  What’s interesting is that people commenting on this story seem to believe that conventional farmers are somehow ignoring practices designed to reduce pesticide use. Like organic farmers, conventional farmers also use pesticides as a last resort, they also practice biocontrols, use crop rotation, beneficial insects etc.  In fact, conventional and organic farming is becoming more similar all the time.  We urge you to visit our website at to learn more. Take a close look at our Ask the Experts section where you can see and hear from real farmers about their pest management practices.    

  • Mike Bendzela

    “Those highly toxic synthetic pesticide formulations are indiscriminate
    killers that also obliterate the beneficial insects that are keeping
    other pest populations in check…”

    Aside from the word “synthetic,” you could be describing the organic insecticide Pyganic.

    The added statement,  “requiring more chemicals with greater
    toxicity” in nonsensical. Some pests are kept in control by beneficials, others are not touched by them. The absence of beneficial insects does not “require more chemicals with greater toxicity.”