FDA study reveals pesticide residue levels are safe

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By Craig W. Anderson

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s annual report on pesticide residues in foods revealed that in fiscal year 2019 domestic and imported foods for humans, of 98.7% of domestic and 89.1% of imported foods were safe, in compliance with federal standards.

Although it is now 2021, the report is far-reaching, detailed and therefore time consuming, so 2019 is as current as the report can be. However, an accumulation of reports over eight years indicates the same thing: pesticide residue levels do not pose a concern for public health and are “generally below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) tolerances.”

Further good news indicated that no detectable residue was discovered in 42.4% of the domestic and 49.4% of the import samples.

Categories tested

The FDA tested for 812 pesticides and industrial chemicals across 4,692 total samples, finding that the majority of samples had pesticide residues below the limits set by the EPA. “These result are consistent with the trend of low levels of pesticide residue violations over the past eight years,” the report concluded.

“I’m surprised when anyone starts denigrating our agriculture as being unsafe,” said SJFB President David Strecker. “In this and other counties, we produce the safest food in the world. This reinforces the theme of buying local and being safe.”

Strecker pointed out there are “no consistent regulations worldwide that are as effective as ours.” There are, however, some government supported organizations that apply rules for various crops to establish a simultaneity of regulations between nations to ensure the foods are safe.

Ag Commissioner’s role

“We test for residue on organics, farmer’s markets and if complaints are registered,” said SJC Agricultural Commissioner Tim Pelican. “If we find unallowable residue, we take the commodity off the market.”

He said other counties also have test programs for farmer’s markets and an overall sampling of “fruits and vegetables that tend to have residues.” Pelican also said, “The state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation has a robust enforcement program of monthly testing.”

Chemicals concern

“Most of the chemicals we use here are used worldwide,” said SJFB First Vice President Andrew Watkins. “Chemicals that are banned in America are still being applied around the world. There’s no telling what we get from China or other countries unless they’re tested.”

Watkins pointed out that even with the testing of an assortment of products, only a small amount can be analyzed. “The FDA’s testing deals only with a very small percentage of the total product, domestic or imported. Enough to provide us with an idea of residue. But it’s the best that can be done.”

Wash before eating

How can consumers ensure what they’re about to consume is at least reasonably safe? According to the Alliance for Food and Farming, “Washing all produce before eating is a healthful habit. You can reduce and often eliminate pesticide residues – if they are present at all – by washing fresh produce with cold or warm running tap water.”

“That’s why it’s a good idea to wash whatever it is you buy,” said Pelican, adding that packers have their own testing procedures.

Animal food compliance

The FDA also tested 365 animal food samples and found that 98.4% of the domestic and 95.4% of the imported samples were in compliance. No pesticide residues at all in 40.9% of domestic and 49.4% of imported animal food samples.

Worldwide pesticide knowledge lacking

“There are not yet regulations across the world about how to be safe with pesticides,” Strecker said. “Many countries don’t know about PPE’s [Personal Protective Equipment] when dealing with pesticides. We have no detailed knowledge of foreign pesticide procedures, so we have to rely on our testing.”

He said the ag commissioner, FDA and DPR all provide important information to local Farm Bureau members and “this is good information to have despite it being more than a year old. The delay could be due to logistics and challenges in testing.”

Domestic violations of non-compliance with residue standards can lead to warning letters and taking products off store shelves or an injunction for corrective action. As imported products have historically had higher violation rates than domestic foods, a larger percentage of such commodities are sampled. If imported food exceeds federal standards, the company and food face an Import Alert that bans the items from entering the USA.

Compliance explained

What is noncompliance? As the FDA explains it: “The EPA sets a safety standard for pesticide residues called a tolerance. Some samples inevitably fail to meet this rigorous metric.”

“The tolerance is set to insure there is a substantial margin of safety-typically 100-fold between the allowed residue and any level to establish reasonable certainty of no harm to humans,” plant pathologist Steve Savage wrote for the Genetic Literacy Project. “EPA then sets limits on how much of the pesticide can be applied and how close to when the crop will be harvested, so the tolerance is unlikely to be exceeded when farmers use the product.”

Detection and safety

According to a release from the American Council on Science & Health, “What matters with pesticide residues is not… [if] they can be detected with the enormously sensitive laboratory methods available today…[but] which chemicals are involved and at what levels relative to the tolerances. Our agricultural chemicals are completely safe at typical exposure levels.”

DPR tests, too

California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation does its own testing which revealed that 96% of fresh produce samples collected by DPR scientists in 2019, had either “no detectable pesticide residues, or amounts below safety tolerances.” the agency said in a release.

“This program is a vitally important tool for helping to ensure the safety of California’s food supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, whether imported…or grown in our state,” said DPR Director Val Dolcini. “It’s a deterrent to bad actors and also a helpful way to educate growers about what is and isn’t acceptable in California.”

It’s safe to eat

“These [FDA] findings suggest that the domestic industry is largely able to produce and deliver fruits and vegetables free of harmful pesticide residues to the public,” wrote Richard Smoley, of the agriculture consulting firm Blue Book Services, Inc.

“Information provided by the FDA and DPR helps growers spend money on materials when necessary, which protects our crops, consumers and our pocket books,” Strecker said.