Forbidden Fruit | Illegal Pesticides in the US Food Supply

Illegal Pesticides in the U.S. Food Supply

Wednesday, February 1, 1995

Forbidden Fruit | Illegal Pesticides in the US Food Supply

Illegal Pesticides in the U.S. Food Supply

Most people believe that the produce they buy meets pesticide safety standards. But as this study shows, fruits and vegetables with illegal pesticides end up on grocery shelves, in kitchens, and in lunchboxes throughout the country every day.

Forbidden Fruit analyzes 14,923 computerized records from the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) routine pesticide monitoring program for the fiscal years 1992 and 1993. We focused our investigation on 42 fruits and vegetables that respectively comprise 96 and 83 percent of domestic fruit and vegetable consumption.

The core of the analysis is the substantial variance between the illegal pesticides identified by FDA chemists and the pesticides reported as violations of the law by FDA enforcement personnel. This discrepancy is troubling because it points to a serious breach in the government's ability to ensure that the food supply is safe from illegal pesticides.

Over 90 percent of the violations reported in Forbidden Fruit involve two kinds of illegal pesticides: no-tolerance violations, where the pesticide is found on a crop even though the allowable level for the pesticide on that crop is zero; and over-tolerance violations, where the amount of the pesticide found exceeds the legal limit (or tolerance) for that crop.

Among our most important findings:

Many pesticides that have been banned or restricted for health reasons were found illegally on scores of different foods. Examples include:


Captan, a probable human carcinogen banned on 30 crops by the EPA for health reasons--found illegally on 14 of these crops.

Chlorpyrifos (Dursban), a potent neurotoxin heavily used in schools and homes but restricted to use on certain foods to protect young children from additional exposure--found illegally on 16 crops.

Endosulfan, a chemical cousin of DDT that mimics the female hormone estrogen in the human body--found illegally on 10 crops.


  • Some major fruits and vegetables have very high rates of illegal pesticides. During 1992 and 1993, one-quarter of all green peas contained illegal pesticides, as did 15.7 percent of pears, 12.5 percent of apple juice, 11.7 percent of all green onions, 7.6 percent of green beans, and 7.4 percent of all strawberries.


  • Important crops from major suppliers have even higher violation rates, including green peas from Guatemala, with a 40.8 percent violation rate, strawberries from Mexico, with an 18.4 percent violation rate, green onions from the United States at 16.7 percent, head lettuce from Mexico at 15.6 percent, pears from the United States at 14.3 percent, carrots from Mexico at 12.3 percent, and tomatoes from the United States at 9.4 percent.


  • From one-third to one-half of all the pesticide residues detected on some crops were illegal. This includes 51.7 percent of the detected residues on apple juice, 50.6 percent on green peas, 28.4 percent on pineapples, 26.4 percent on pears, and 22.6 percent on carrots. These high rates point toward a potentially high level of illegal pesticide use on these crops that is likely escaping detection by the state enforcement authorities and the FDA.


  • There were at least 66 different illegal pesticides on the 42 fruits and vegetables we analyzed. Seventeen different illegal pesticides were found on green peas, 14 on squash, 12 on strawberries, 11 on carrots and pears, and 10 on cantaloupes and bell peppers.

The rate of illegal pesticides on 42 heavily consumed fruits and vegetables is 76 percent higher than reported by the FDA. The FDA reported a 3.1 percent violation rate for the 42 fruits and vegetables studied in this report. The FDA identified illegal residues on 5.6 percent of the 14,923 samples analyzed.

U.S.-grown produce is more than twice as contaminated with illegal pesticides than the FDA reports. The agency claims that domestically grown produce contains illegal pesticides only 1.5 percent of the time (FDA 1993, 1994b). Our analysis shows that this figure is 3.1 percent. This two-fold underestimate is important because the lion's share of fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. are domestically grown. For some major U.S. crops the violation rates are well above average, including green onions at 16.7 percent, pears at 14.3 percent, tomatoes at 9.4 percent, green peas at 8.6 percent, and peaches at 6.1 percent.

The situation is similar for imported produce. The FDA reports 4.0 percent of imports with illegal pesticides; its records indicate that the rate is 7.4 percent. For countries which export tens of millions of pounds of produce to the U.S. each year, the worst discrepancies include:


  • Guatemala: an actual violation rate of 24.8 percent (due mostly to snowpeas and blackberries); the FDA reports 13.8 percent.


  • Mexico: an actual violation rate exceeding 7.4 percent; the FDA reports only 4.0 percent.


  • Canada: an actual violation rate of 5.0 percent; the FDA reports only 1.6 percent.

Problems with the FDA pesticide monitoring program are not new. Since 1980, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) has published 22 reports detailing the shortcomings of the FDA pesticide monitoring program.

Time and again the GAO has found that the FDA's equipment, sampling strategies and legal authority are no match for the task at hand. As a result, virtually all of the illegal pesticides reported by the FDA are eaten by an unsuspecting public (GAO 1992d, 1994b). Certainly illegal pesticides that are not reported are consumed by the public as well.

The American public eats billions of pounds of fruits and vegetables contaminated with illegal pesticides each year. In fact, a person eating the USDA's recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, will eat illegal pesticides in these fruits and vegetables at least 75 times per year. In contrast, the average consumer has to eat about 100 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables in order to eat from a shipment tested for pesticides by the FDA. This means that the average American is at least 15 times more likely to eat an illegal pesticide than to eat from a shipment tested by the FDA.

The FDA's failure to catch illegal pesticides stems in part from the agency's lack of legal authority and money to tackle such a gargantuan task, and in part from day to day management failures. The agency does not have a computerized pesticide tolerance database to monitor test results for illegal pesticides. All results are scrutinized by hand, and violations are flagged by a lab technician supposedly familiar with the tolerance limits. It is clear that this process fails to work effectively or efficiently, and that it routinely allows shipments of produce with illegal pesticides to be unwittingly purchased and eaten.



More taxpayer money is not the answer to FDA's problems. In fact, there is not enough money in the entire FDA food regulatory budget to fix the pesticide monitoring program in its current form. What is needed is a fundamental restructuring that shifts much of the responsibility for assuring food safety and compliance with federal law to its appropriate place: the food industry. In simplest terms, individuals and corporations who sell food treated with pesticides must assure that the levels remaining on the food comply with federal limits. Currently there is little reason to believe this is true.

A more efficient and cost-effective approach to ensure compliance with pesticide tolerances would be one based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) methods. HACCP is being used to tackle microbial contamination problems in the seafood industry, and recently it has been adopted by food companies and other industries. HACCP is a systems approach to food safety, emphasizing quality control from the start of the process and through each critical stage. Under HACCP, responsibility for ensuring safety of the food supply is shared between government and industry.

As a result, a HACCP approach creates a more appropriate and realistic role for the FDA. Under this system the private sector would be responsible for residue testing; the FDA would police the testing process and focus its limited testing resources on trouble spots.


Elements of a HACCP Approach

Three important elements must be present and working symbiotically for a HACCP approach to be successful:


  • Third-party certification
  • Recordkeeping and public disclosure
  • Education

Third-party certification. All domestic and imported food shipments must be sampled and tested for compliance with food tolerances by third parties using approved FDA pesticide analytical methods. The FDA should audit these monitoring results quarterly through mandatory analyses of spiked blind samples.

The FDA and taxpayers should not be solely responsible for all pesticide residue monitoring and enforcement. Instead, the food sector of the economy, which accounts for a greater percentage of the GNP than the health care industry, must be required to prove with reasonable certainty that imported and domestic food marketed in the United States meets U.S. food safety standards. This means testing and providing documentation of compliance with pesticide tolerances for all shipments of produce sold in the United States.

Recordkeeping and public disclosure. All pesticides applied to a crop must be listed on each domestic and imported shipment. This list must include pesticides whose residues typically degrade below levels normally detected by routine analysis, as well as those likely to leave residues. Civil penalties must be available to the FDA as an enforcement mechanism when pesticides not listed are found on a shipment. Lists must be made available to the public upon request.

Records are good business practice and an integral facet of any HACCP program. Under the current system, the FDA has only cursory knowledge of the pesticides applied to a given crop, and is then forced to rely on multiresidue methods of detection, hoping that the reach of these tests will catch all of the violative residues. Due to their relatively high cost, the FDA rarely uses single residue methods needed to find many heavily used carcinogenic compounds like the EBDC fungicides. A recordkeeping requirement would enable both third-party inspectors and FDA labs to use their resources more wisely in searching for pesticides on food. Public access to these records and civil fines for confirmed disparities between the records and residues found would act as an additional deterrent to illegal pesticide use.

Education. New systems must be created to provide growers with up-to-date information about the acceptable use of pesticides on food. For importers, the FDA must provide this information in the importing countries' primary language.

Growers--importers and domestic producers--must be kept fully versed on the tolerance system in the United States. To make this happen, the FDA must assemble and make publicly available a computerized, on-line pesticide tolerance system that is updated monthly. Questions about pesticide label rates and tolerances should be handled by an easy-to-reach phone hotline. At the same time, growers should be encouraged to reduce the use of pesticides through integrated pest management strategies and alternatives to chemicals.

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