It’s the silver anniversary for the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program, which marks 25 years with results from samples collected in 2015. It’s a comforting report because it shows American-grown fruits and vegetables are safe because pesticide levels are kept below levels permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has the most stringent restrictions in the world.
At the moment, it’s a simple consumer message: Fruits and vegetables are good for you and you don’t have to pay higher prices for “organics” to get the benefits.
One of the users of the USDA data is the Environmental Working Group, which produces an annual “Dirty Dozen” list with a purist perspective when it comes to avoiding pesticides. It usually comes out in the spring.
The “Dirty Dozen” list is certainly a warning to buy “organic” to be safe, but EWG critics say it’s a false warning, especially for the poor at a time when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only one in 10 Americans are eating enough fruits and vegetables.
USDA’s publishing of the new data for 2015 starts the cycle for the annual debate for the 25th time.
Before anyone can sell or distribute any pesticide in the Untied States, it must be submitted to EPA, which determines a safe level for it if its to be used in growing or storing food. EPA also determines the residue level that can remain when it reaches the consumer.
USDA’s Agricultural Marking Services (AMS) conducts the sampling program in conjunction with ten states: California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington.
‘These states had a prominent role in program planning and policy setting, particularly policies related to quality assurance,” according to this year’s report.
Samples are tested for both pesticides and commodities, and randomly taken to be close to the time and point of consumption without regard to country of origin variety, growing season or organic labeling.
During 2015, fresh and processed fruits and vegetable accounted for 96.9 percent of the 10,187 samples taken during the year. Peanut butter samples accounted for 3.1 percent. Samples included apples, cherries, cucumbers, grapefruit, grapes, green beans, lettuce, nectarines, oranges, peaches, pears, potatoes, spinach, strawberries , sweet corn, tomatoes and watermelon.
About 23 percent of the samples were from imported fruit and vegetables. Except for 0.9 with unknown origins, all the rest — 76.1 percent — were of domestic origin. The laboratories doing the testing are setup to detect the lowest possible levels of pesticides. Samples are washed for 15-20 seconds under gently running cold water before testing.
More than two million results were reported for 2015.
“In 2015, over 99 percent of the samples tested had residues well below the tolerances established by EPA with 15 percent having no detectable pesticide residue,” the USDA reports.
Residues exceeding EPA levels were found in 54 samples, which is less than 1 percent of all samples tested. One third of the the 54 samples with excessive residues, 18 samples, were from imports, meaning two-thirds of the samples with residues exceeding EPA levels were from the U.S.
The Alliance for Food and Farming, which includes both conventional and organic farms, promotes the “exceptionally high level of compliance by farmers of fruits and vegetables to U.S. pesticide laws and regulations…” It also points out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has concluded that pesticide residues pose no risk or concerns for infants and children.
The alliance also claims produce safety concerns, like those raised by the “Dirty Dozen” list, have a negative import on consumption of both convention and organic fruits and vegetables.
In addition to its “Dirty Dozen” list, the EWG publishes a “Clean Fifteen” group. It also mines some interesting factoids from the data. In the 2014 data it found a single grape sample and a sweet bell pepper sample that each contained 15 pesticides and one strawberry sample containing 17.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)