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What's on Our Food?

by aseligmann — last modified Jul 16, 2010 12:00 AM

Pesticides commonly contaminate America's food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes an annual pesticide data report that provides reliable information on pesticide residues in food, with emphasis on items eaten by infants and children. This data helps the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate potential health risks from dietary exposure.

Pesticides commonly contaminate America's food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes an annual pesticide data report that provides reliable information on pesticide residues in food, with emphasis on items eaten by infants and children. This data helps the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate potential health risks from dietary exposure.

The EPA establishes allowable levels of pesticide residues on food based on its assessment of health risks; a "tolerance" is set for each pesticide that is used on a particular crop. In the USDA study, very few food samples exceeded tolerance levels. In addition, only a small percentage of samples were contaminated by pesticides that were not allowed on specific crops. Nevertheless, the high rates of food contamination are sobering.

The USDA study showed that more than half of all fresh produce samples contained two or more pesticides. It also found at least one pesticide on 97 percent of celery samples and 96 percent of peach samples. Seventy-three percent of banana samples contained pesticides. Fifty-eight percent of tomato samples were contaminated, which places that fruit at the "low" end of contamination.

One sample each of blueberries and celery contained residues of 13 different pesticides.

Pesticides were also detected on processed produce: 18 percent of apple juice samples, 59 percent of raisin samples, 83 percent of frozen potato samples and 82 percent of frozen blueberry samples were contaminated.

In addition, 58 percent of almond, 63 percent of corn grain and 81 percent of heavy cream samples were contaminated.

More than half of honey samples contained pesticide residues �mostly from two insecticides used to control mites in beehives.

The EPA establishes most food "tolerances" on a chemical-by-chemical basis. The agency does not consider the fact that people are exposed to multiple pesticide residues in food and there could be a synergistic effect. Only the neurotoxic organophosphate insecticides are currently being regulated as a group, with an eye to protecting children from dietary exposure to multiple sources and chemicals.

What's on Your Food?

People are becoming increasingly concerned about pesticides contaminating the food they feed their families. They want to know what pesticides are being used and what the adverse health effects of those chemicals are.

To help people access that information, the Pesticide Action Network has created an easy-to-use database that contains the most recent USDA data on pesticide residues on food and provides information on the potential health effects of many pesticides.

The database, called What's On Your Food, can be found at http://www.whatsonyourfood.org. It allows anyone to pick a food and find out what's on it. There may be a short or long list of chemicals. Additional details are available through the "conventional vs. organic" links. Rates of pesticide contamination can be compared on organic vs. conventional food and domestically grown food vs. imported food.

To simplify the information on health effects, PANNA has created icons that represent four different categories:

  • Cancer
  • Hormone Disruption (Hormones include estrogen, testosterone, thyroid hormones, etc. EPA is now proposing some testing on hormonal effects before pesticides are registered or re-registered.)
  • Nervous system (The nervous system includes the brain.)
  • Reproductive system and child development (fertility, development of fetus and childhood health.)

 

Click here for database: What's on My Food?



How are foods contaminated?

Crop applications: Most pesticide residues found on food result from treatment of crops to control insects, weeds and plant diseases.

Post harvest applications: Some foods are treated with fungicides after harvest to prevent decay. For example, a substantial portion of banana contamination probably comes from the post harvest use of two fungicides that help prevent end rot. In addition, potatoes are often treated after harvest to prevent sprouting, resulting in contamination.

Spray drift: Crops can be contaminated by sprays that drift from applications of pesticides on neighboring crops. This may sometimes result in violative pesticide residues when the drifting pesticide is not allowed to be used on the affected crop.

Unintended residues in soil: Where crop rotation is practiced, residues from a previous crop may persist in the soil long enough to contaminate the succeeding crop. Residue violations may occur when the residual pesticide is not registered for use on the next crop.

Traces of DDT and related insecticides have remained in soil for many years since they were banned. Tiny amounts of DDE (from DDT) are still detected in some food crops. Plant and soil contamination contribute to DDE contamination found in dairy products. In animals, DDT and other organochlorine chemicals are stored in the fat, so butter has higher levels of these contaminants than milk (tested by USDA in other years).

The USDA characterizes the banned DDT, chlordane, and related residues as "environmental contaminants" rather than "pesticide residues." This contamination is a long-lasting legacy resulting from the once widespread use of these chemicals.


RESOURCES

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Marketing Service. 2008.
Pesticide Data Program. Annual Summary, Calendar Year 2007.
http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5074338

Pesticide Action Network - North America. 2009.
What's on my food [database]
http://www.whatsonmyfood.org/