Spray it forward: Pesticide residues in U.S. food

The USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service has released its annual summary (PDF) for its Pesticide Data Program. And it scares me. 

In 2006, the PDP says it tested 13,658 samples of food and bottled/drinking water from participating states California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Ohio, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Interestingly, about 18% of samples were considered imports, but that part was not explained.

More importantly, detectable pesticide residues were found in:

  • 69% of the wheat grain
  • 64% of the fresh fruit and vegetables
  • 59% of the processed fruit and vegetables
  • 30% of the peanut butter
  • 19% of the bottled water
  • 7% of the poultry

In addition, the report adds, "Low levels of environmental contaminants were detected in broccoli, carrots, kale greens, peaches, frozen sweet peas, spinach, watermelon, winter squash, peanut butter, and poultry."

But don't panic! The vast majority of those pesticide residues and environmental contaminants "are well below levels that trigger regulatory actions," the report says soothingly.

Only 0.2% of the 12,554 samples (excluding water)  tested had residues that exceeded the established tolerance levels mandated by the Code of Federal Regulations. Hoping to be reassured, I looked up the relevant portion of that code (Title 40, Part 180), where I found the specifications for pesticides derived from known carcinogens such as methyl bromide, arsenic, and cyanide and others with really long names that made me think of 10th-grade chemistry and fall asleep.

All of a sudden the idea that 2 out of 1,000 bites of U.S. food contain higher-than-even-these-scary-levels of pesticide residues makes me even more committed to the idea of buying organic or at least no-spray local food.

And you?

Photo of pesticide application in North Carolina from the USDA's Online Photography Center

9 Responsesto “Spray it forward: Pesticide residues in U.S. food”

  1. Dave says:

    very scary. I'm guessing peanuts are a less sprayed plant than most other fruits and vegetables? Or does it have to with the way each are processed?

  2. pattie says:

    The 19% of bottled water statistic is downright frightening, because if we can't even drink water anymore . . .

  3. valereee says:

    Pattie, I know! 19%!

    I'm thinking my stainless bottle of local tap water is looking like a better choice for a lot of reasons...

  4. Bonnie P. says:

    Dave: I would guess it's because peanuts are shelled, and most of the residues get left behind.

    Pattie & Val, don't be too alarmed. Here's the relevant paragraph on bottled and finished drinking (treated tap) water from the PDF:

    For bottled water, 12 different residues from 6 different pesticides were detected. Most samples with detectable residues contained only a single pesticide or metabolite. All detections were well below established FDA Standards of Quality. In finished drinking water, PDP detected low levels (measured in parts per trillion) of some pesticides, primarily widely used herbicides and their metabolites. Forty-eight different residues were detected in the untreated intake water and 39 in the treated water. The majority of pesticides, metabolites, and isomers included in the PDP testing profiles were not detected. None of the detections in the finished water samples exceeded established EPA Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) or Health Advisory levels or established Freshwater Aquatic Organism criteria.

    We're probably more at risk from the flame-retardants in our beds and couches than our food or water. Now, don't you feel better?

  5. Emily says:

    Were any of these food samples organic?

  6. Bonnie P. says:

    Emily: They did not say that any samples were organic, no. Wish they'd tested some. I am sure that organic food also contains some detectable residues, due to drift and groundwater.

  7. farmboy says:

    PDP data has demonstrated for years that commercial produce and meat products in the US consistently contain extremely low levels of pesticide residues. What the general public hears when this message is conveyed is that their food is contaminated with pesticides. I'm not an epidemiologist or toxicologist and I have enormous respect for Chuck Benbrook, Ken Cook, John Wargo and others who have made the case that such residue levels represent a serious human health risk. I am firmly convinced that residues at this level DO NOT represent such a risk.

    Many pesticides are indeed dangerous (dose makes the poison)but the greatest vulnerability is at the time of application. Farmworkers and their famililies and the surrounding community face significant health risks associated with direct contact during and following pesticide application. There is also the substantial environmental damage, chronic and accute, resulting from pesticde usage. The problem with basing risk assessment on the genuine vulnerability of farm families and the environment is that both those constituencies have negligible standing in DC. No room at the inn for them, so to speak.

    I worked in DC for six years, 1.5 in sustainable ag advocacy and 4.5 at USDA. I was participatory in all the public meetings involving the implementation of the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), the legislation that overhauled our pesticide regulatory process. The focus has been, is and will continue to be on miniscule levels of residues in our food supply because that is the only argument that can generate any traction to motivate change in DC. Informing people that pesticide residues in their food supply is detrimental to their health gets their attention. Telling people that such residues are damaging their childrens' health gets them to call their Congressperson and demand change. Constituents, especially when channeled through very effective organizations like EWG, get listened to. And tolerance levels (food-specific,legally allowable pesticide residue levels) get lowered. Farmworkers and the environment? Back of the bus.

    I love EWG, by the way, love and respect the work they do. I'm not saying that they don't believe resdiue levels to be dangerous, or that they want farmworkers and the environment to go to the back of the bus. They don't at all. But DC dictates it's own bizarre physics, so you can get results, but seldom if ever the results you intend - ask the organic folks about this phenomenon. Here is one genuine criticism I have of EWG on these matters. They put out a list of the ten most contaminated and ten least contaminated common fruit and vegetables. The idea is to buy to avoid residue exposure by purchasing the most likely to be contaminated, while saving money and buying conventional those products that don't test high for residues. A purely selfish standard - bananas test low on resdiues thanks to the peel, so EWG is encouraging consumers to purchase plantation grown, heavily sprayed fruit.

    Think the Central American banana workers and the environment are well served? Being organic for selfish reasons is oxymoronic since the premise of organic agriculture is that we are all in this together!

  8. Bonnie P. says:

    Farmboy:

    Thank you for that thoughtful response. You are correct that the pesticide levels in our food are negligible and unlikely to harm us, and that they still serve as a lever to scare people into choosing organic. Believe me, I couldn't agree with you more about those wretched "10 Foods You Must Buy Organic" lists. To me they say "Save yourself; screw the planet!" Thanks to you I am going to start making a bigger stink about those lists as being selfish.

    If such residues remain on foods, what sort of concentrations are the people who pick them being exposed to? That's the really scary part. How do we make farmworkers stop being "back of the bus"?

  9. Frank says:

    A very common misconception is that organincally grown produce is not sprayed with pesticides. Organic growers are allowed a very long list of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, many of which will kill you just as fast as any commercial product. Nicotine, which is very toxic, is allowed on organic produce in both California and Oregon.

    If you are concerned about pesticides you should get to know your grower at a farmer's market and ask about his or her farm practices. I am an agricultural inspector so I know of what I speak. Rest assured that all the great nutrients you get by eating a varied diet will surely outweigh any risks due to any minute pesticide residues. Remember, caffeine and vitamins E and A are toxic too! You'll die sooner by worrying about it so don't.