BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Each year, the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency work together to identify foods to be tested for pesticide resides on a rotating basis.
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service partners with state agencies to collect and analyze pesticide chemical residue levels on selected foods while the EPA uses data from the Pesticide Data Program to enhance its programs for food safety and help evaluate dietary exposure to pesticides.
In 2012, surveys were conducted on a variety of foods including fresh and processed fruits and vegetables wheat, butter and water. “Over 99 percent of the products sampled through PDP had residues below the EPA tolerances,” according to a USDA statement released in February as part of their annual summary.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the responsibility of assessing whether pesticide chemical residues found on food are within the law.
“FDA is able to conduct its own tests, interpret the reported violations, and determine if additional testing is needed in order to take enforcement action, as appropriate,” the agency stated in February.
The USDA is responsible for ensuring that the public is protected from unreasonable health risks posed by eating foods that have been treated with pesticides.
“The newest data from the PDP program confirms that pesticide residues in food do not pose a safety concern for Americans,” the EPA stated.
However, Charles Benbrook, a Washington State University professor and researcher, claims the average American that consumes 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day is exposed to 5-12 different pesticides on a daily basis. Benbrook’s research includes analyzing the USDA pesticide residue data by foods and food groups.
“Fortunately we are making progress driving down use and reliance of the pesticides that we know pose the greatest risks,” said Benbrook.
However, not everyone agrees. Marvin Pritts, a Horticulture professor at Cornell University, says pesticide residue is a nonissue. “Whether it’s an organic pesticide or a conventional pesticide there’s no issue with food safety with the residue,” he said.
Pritts says the real concern should be about pathogens on food, and not pesticide residue.
“There are residues but usually they’re present at parts per billion in really tiny, tiny amounts. People have looked at this for 50 years and to date no one’s really found any study that shows that pesticide residues are harmful in food,” he said.
Still, some shoppers are concerned about pesticide exposure through food. “We try and cleanse the vegetables and fruits off before we consume them,” Mary Dulski told News 4.
That sort of skepticism is fueled in part by what many people read and hear.
“There are certainly questions that should be on the mind of every consumer, every pediatrician, every expectant mother,” said Benbrook.
He claims there are certain pesticides that pose the greatest risk to pregnant women and their developing fetus by disrupting normal development.
“Particularly on the neurological system and things like the infant’s and child’s and adult’s intelligence; some very clear evidence of a link with autism and with ADHD,” he said.
The EPA regulates the use of pesticides and establishes tolerances, the maximum amount of pesticides allowed on or in food.
“EPA believes that the tolerance process is protective of human health because it is based on extensive testing and on a combination of conservative assumptions and risk assessment practices developed using current scientific knowledge,” the agency’s web site states. “At the same time, the Agency is working to make federal standards more protective of infants and children and to better understand the potential risks of pesticides.”
“I think that we’re generally pretty protected, and we’ve lived a long time doing that,” said shopper Kelly Crystal.
Jim Bittner, president and general manager of Bittner-Singer Orchards, says pesticide use is highly controlled and regulated.
“Any pesticide that we use has got to be approved by the EPA; organic or conventional. It’s got to be approved by the EPA and then New York State DEC spends another year looking at it,” said Bittner. “If the residue shows up that person is in big trouble, got a lot of explaining to do. You don’t want to mess around with that.”
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation conducts routine and complaint driven inspections at farms throughout the growing season.
“The pesticides would not be registered in New York State if they posed an unreasonable risk to either the users or consumers,” according to an agency statement.
“When you look at what we’re eating, we’re eating chemicals all the time and a lot of those are produced by the plant to defend itself against pests and diseases,” said Cornell University’s Marvin Pritts. “And a farmer comes along and adds an additional product. But really in the scheme of things is a tiny, tiny. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to all the chemicals that plants produce naturally.”
Washington State University’s Charles Benbrook says there are still pesticide residues and risks in the typical American diet.
“The most worrisome source of high residue and high risk foods are imported fruits and vegetables that many of us depend on in the winter,” said Benbrook.
A Government Accountability Office report just released said the FDA is testing less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all imported fruits and vegetables.
The GAO, an investigative arm of Congress, recommends the FDA improve its methodology and FDA and USDA disclose limitations in their monitoring and data collection efforts.
“Further, FDA does not disclose in its annual monitoring reports that it does not test for several commonly used pesticides with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established tolerance (the maximum amount of a pesticide residue that is allowed to remain on or in a food)—including glyphosate, the most used agricultural pesticide,” the GAO stated.
According to the GAO, “Limitations in FDA’s methodology hamper its ability to determine the national incidence and level of pesticide residues in the foods it regulates, one of its stated objectives.”