Latest pesticide data not as reassuring as regulators would have us believe

Posted by
July 3, 2012

At the end of May the Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its 2010 numbers for the annual Pesticide Data Program (PDP) – a yearly sampling of commodities conducted since 1991 by the agency that checks for and measures pesticide residues. 2010 was the first year that included baby food in the analysis.

So what’s the scoop? Are we ingesting fewer pesticides? Is seeking out organic products really all that necessary? And what about those baby foods? It depends on whom you ask. Government regulators say things are all basically A-OK, but consumer groups offer a different perspective.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA), USDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) all had positive things to say about the results of the 2010 PDP. The EPA, for example, contended that “(t)he very small amounts of pesticide residues found in the baby food samples were well below levels that are harmful to children.” And the FDA added this statement to the USDA press release: “Based on the PDP data from this report, parents and caregivers can continue to feed infants their regular baby foods without being concerned about the possible presence of unlawful pesticide chemical residues.”

But if you check out what the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which has been following the PDP for the last ten years, has to say about the results, you might think they are talking about an entirely different study.

EWG president Ken Cook, in the group’s June statement on the study, contends that “(g)overnment scientists have found disturbing concentrations of pesticide in some baby foods. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found weed killers widespread in finished tap water…The latest USDA tests show we have much more work to do.”

So what gives? Should we believe the FDA and not be concerned, or take heed as the EWG advises?

It’s all a question of ‘tolerances’

The difference in opinion seems to boil down to a highly complex concept embraced by the EPA called “risk assessment,” which is not a ‘real life’ scenario in regard to pesticides.

The fact is that the EPA permits pesticide residues to remain on food. It uses measurements called “tolerances,” the maximum legal amounts allowed in the food you eat. Your fruit salad, for instance, could have multiple traces of pesticides in it, all quite legal, from a variety of chemicals applied to different fruits.

To set a tolerance (which is in reality an “enforcement tool”) the EPA reviews animal studies designed to look for organ damage to the test animal, then divides the no-observable-effect level by an “uncertainty factor.” The results are then extrapolated from animal studies and an allowable tolerance is issued.

So when the EPA talks about pesticide levels that are not “harmful to children,” they’ve made a pretty big leap from a rat to a kid – one that doesn’t mean no pesticides were detected. As Mary O’Brien, former staff scientist for the Environmental Research Foundation, has observed, “Risk assessment arranges deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The 2010 USDA data, according to the EWG, shows that 68 percent of food samples contained detectible pesticide residues. The group also noted that:

  • Some 98 percent of conventional apples have detectable levels of pesticides.
  • Domestic blueberries tested positive for 42 different pesticide residues.
  • Seventy-eight different pesticides were found on lettuce samples.
  • Every single nectarine the USDA tested had measurable pesticide residues.
  • As a category, grapes have more types of pesticides remaining on them than any other fruit, – 64 different chemicals, in all.
  • Thirteen different pesticides were measured on a single sample each of celery and strawberries.

The experts weigh in on the baby food question

Dr. Chuck Benbrook, senior scientist for The Organic Center had this to say about the results of the tested baby food: “Nine percent of the green bean samples had clearly unacceptable levels of the organophosphate insecticide methamidophos. A remarkable 25 percent of pear baby food samples contained six or more residues, and 3.7 percent of the samples contained 10 residues.”

Jim Turner, board chair for Citizens for Health, and author of Making Your Own Baby Food, which sold over a million copies with three editions during its print run, says that this “is further evidence that you can’t rely on conventional baby food and should be making your own from organic produce.”

Renowned nutrition authority Dr. Andrew Weil agrees, telling the EWG, “It is bad enough that baby food contains pesticides at all; the fact that pears contain a likely human carcinogen is an outrage. Parents should purchase organic baby foods, or better yet, prepare their own by putting organic foods through a simple hand-turned food mill.”

The 2010 Pesticide Data Program results seems to confirm what organic advocates have been saying all along: that we know too little about the toxic chemicals used on our food supply and even less about how they may interact with each other and what those effects may be on the most vulnerable –  infants and children.


If you would like to make the switch to organic, but are not ready to go ‘all the way,’ check out the EWG list of fruits and veggies most highly contaminated with pesticide residues here.

The Organic Center also puts out “The Shopper’s Guide” that lists the fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide risk per serving, as well as some information on dairy, meat, and grains, which can be downloaded here:

Another plus of an organic diet is that you won’t find any high fructose corn syrup in organic processed foods!