Forbidden Fruit | Illegal Pesticides in the US Food Supply

Illegal Pesticides in the U.S. Food Supply

February 1, 1995

Forbidden Fruit | Illegal Pesticides in the US Food Supply: 3. Conclusions and Recommendations


Pesticides are ubiquitous on fruits and vegetables, and this report has found that illegal pesticides are considerably more common than the Food and Drug Administration reports. Everyone who eats fruits and vegetables eats illegal pesticides.

The FDA pesticide monitoring program is hampered at each step by a lack of resources, poor management, and deficient enforcement powers. Because the FDA tests so few samples each year and because most illegal food--whether tested or not--reaches the consumer, the resulting violation rates only tell part of the story. Assuming, as the FDA does, that the violation rates identified by its labs are a reasonably accurate depiction of the overall food supply, billions of pounds of contaminated produce enter U.S. markets each year.

The situation sorely tests the credibility of the pesticide regulatory system. A person following the USDA-recommended diet of five fruits and vegetables a day will consume produce contaminated with illegal pesticide residues at least 75 times each year. On the flip side, 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. Looked at yet another way, 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.

Some crops and countries had violation rates considerably higher than the overall average. One-quarter of all green peas (especially those from Guatemala and the United States), 15.7 percent of all pears (imported from Asia and grown domestically), and about 12 percent of apple juice, blackberries, and green onions were contaminated with illegal residues. The FDA detected ten or more different illegal pesticides on eight different crops, including carrots, strawberries, pears, and cantaloupe.

The FDA underreported the actual rate of illegal pesticides in these 42 fruits and vegetables by 76 percent. Much of the underreporting by the FDA labs is due to its lack of an automated pesticide tolerance database with which to compare its testing results. The practice of checking all results manually simply leaves too much room for human error.

Recommendations: HACCP

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.

To minimize the widespread illegal use of pesticides in the fruit and vegetable industry, a fundamental restructuring of the pesticide tolerance enforcement system is needed. The centerpiece of this redesign must be a shift of 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 establish systems and procedures whereby they can assure the FDA that the pesticides remaining on the food comply with federal limits. Currently this is not the case.

This report, and 22 previous GAO reports, amply demonstrate that the FDA cannot monitor the food supply for pesticides with current resources and legal authority. A computerized tolerance database would minimize mistakes by lab inspectors and is needed to build quality control into the system, but even a vastly enlarged testing program will never solve the problem of illegal pesticide residues in food. End-product testing does not prevent violations from occurring, especially when the food is already moving in commerce and the chances of being reprimanded by the government for a violation are so minimal.

A more efficient and cost-effective approach to ensure pesticide compliance would be one based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) methods. HACCP is being used to tackle microbial contamination problems within 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 at each critical stage. Under HACCP, the responsibility for ensuring the safety of the food supply is shared between government and industry.

This approach creates a more appropriate and realistic role for the FDA. Under a HACCP 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. The appropriate analogy is the manner in which health and safety studies are conducted to register pesticides with the EPA. The EPA does not commission and pay for health and safety tests. Instead, the pesticide registrant incurs these costs to obtain the privilege of selling the pesticide. The EPA, in turn, audits both the results of the studies and the labs that conduct the animal tests. Likewise, the food industry should incur the cost of a HACCP program in order to provide the public with proof, not otherwise currently available, that marketed food meets legal standards.


Elements of a HACCP Approach for Pesticide Tolerance Enforcement

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. 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.

Under such a system, growers and importers would be required to provide certification prior to sale to both the retailer and the FDA that all pesticide residues on a given shipment are in compliance with U.S. standards. Such certification must be based on third-party sampling and testing and done by labs using FDA-approved pesticide analytical methods. Incentives must be put in place to reward third-party labs for finding violations.

Third-party sampling and certification will require more effort on the part of importers and growers, especially in terms of maintaining lot integrity, but the idea is readily achievable, especially if record keeping is required. The costs to consumers will be negligible; less than one-tenth of a penny per pound based on experience from current third-party certification programs. Without the active involvement of the fruit and vegetable industry, the American public will never have any reasonable assurance that the produce they eat is not contaminated with illegal pesticide residues.

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. 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.