The fiscal year 2015 annual report from the Food and Drug Administration's Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program found that 98% of domestic foods and 90% of imported foods tested were within federal pesticide residue limits. The report stated that 18.3% of fruits and 38% of vegetables sampled showed no detectable pesticide residues, but 2.2% of fruit samples and 3.8% of vegetable samples contained residues that violated federal limits.
FDA analyzed 5,989 samples under the regulatory monitoring program — 5,572 human foods and 417 animal foods — according to the agency's 47-page report. Of the total items tested, 4,737 samples were imported and 835 were domestic. Imported fruit and vegetable samples had higher pesticide levels than domestic fruit and vegetables.
The testing methods used were capable of detecting 696 pesticides and industrial chemicals in the produce samples. Residues of 207 different pesticides were actually found in the analysis, the agency reported. FDA also noted that 11 chemical residues in the latest report had not been previously detected by its monitoring program.
It's good to know that most of the fresh produce available in the U.S. market wasn't awash in pesticides and other chemicals during the sampling window covered by this report, which was Oct. 1, 2014, through Sept. 30, 2015. However, it's concerning that 11 chemicals showed up for the first time in those produce samples, which could come from increased chemical use or more sophisticated testing equipment.
The produce industry usually seizes on these kinds of reports as proof that fresh produce is safe to consume, and the report's domestic sampling results in particular seem to support that conclusion. U.S. produce is relatively safe compared to that in some other countries, especially in places where chemicals banned for agricultural applications here are still allowed — such as DDT.
Environmental organizations usually jump on pesticide residue sampling reports to point out that even if detected levels were low, they are still present and indicate that chemical use on crops meant for human consumption needs to be scaled back. The ever-present debate rages on, even before the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" report shows up each spring. Some find the interpretation of testing results alarmist — especially those who believe that contamination levels pose an imminent threat to public health.
Consumers generally aren't keen about having any pesticide residues on their produce at all, regardless of whether they are within federal limits. A 2015 Consumer Reports survey found pesticides in produce are a concern for 85% of Americans, even if there's no other feasible way to control pests and diseases.
It could benefit farm workers, pollinators and the environment — and consumer attitudes toward produce safety — if farmers cut back on pesticide use. But, on the other hand, it could also be beneficial if reports like these, showing produce safety, are more widely publicized.
Glyphosate, the commonly used pesticide that is the main chemical in RoundUp and has spurred controversy worldwide, had been conspicuously missing from the list of substances for which FDA tested. The agency recently announced that it started preliminary testing of soybean, corn, milk and egg samples for glyphosate residues. The agency found no violations with those four items and has expanded testing to other foods during the current fiscal year. FDA also plans to include glyphosate testing results in future annual reports of the Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program.