USDA annual report: Pesticide residues on food well below amounts dangerous to humans

scientistsar

Each year, the farmers around the world who produce our food (fruits, vegetables, grains) get the equivalent of a “grade” on a giant “group project.” For 2014 they got another A+ as they have for many years. The “test” entails thousands of food samples, which the USDA collects from normal US food channels and then scrutinizes for pesticide residues using extremely sensitive laboratory testing methods. They are checking for any detectable residues (41 percent of samples have none) and whether any of the detectable residues exceed the conservative “tolerances” set by the EPA (99.6 percent of the samples met that exacting standard). This means that our regulatory/farming system is working extremely well! Farmers are able to produce crops without the inefficiency and quality issues associated with excessive pest damage, and consumers are able to safely enjoy what they grow. The official conclusion from the USDA is “These Pesticide Data Program data show that, overall, pesticide residues found on foods tested are at levels below the tolerances established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and pose no safety concern.”

The 10,750 samples the USDA tested in 2014

Chemical pesticides are only one part of the pest control regime, but an important one. The chemical pesticides in use today are predominantly low in mammalian toxicity, but for all pesticides the EPA sets detailed rules for how they can be used (e.g. maximum rates, periods of time before harvest…). These are designed to ensure that any residues that remain at the consumer level are below a “tolerance” based on a rigorous, multi-factorial risk assessment by the EPA. The tolerance is generally 100 times less than a dose that could cause any ill effect.  The allowed residues are also lower than the levels of natural pesticidal compounds that many crops make to defend themselves.

The 2014 USDA “test” is called the Pesticide Detection Program or PDP, and it has been conducted every year since 1991. For 2014 tests were done on 10,750 samples including 21 types of fruits or vegetables, two grains, two types of infant formula and salmon. The scientists detected a total of 22,890 specific pesticide residues of which 98.5 percent were below tolerance or at such low levels they couldn’t even be properly quantified (see table below).

Details on the 2014 detections

I appreciate the fact that the USDA makes this data available and transparent. It allows us to see that not only are most of the residues below tolerance, a great many of them are more than 10, 100 or even 1,000 times lower than the tolerance (see column chart below – all to the left of the center bar are no-issue detections, but 84 percent are far below).

Note how many of the detections are 10 to 100 or 100 to 1000 times lower than the tolerance!

There are some minor differences between crops. In the two charts below, the light green bars show how many of the detections in a given crop were below tolerance, and the dark green bars show what percent were 10 or more times lower than the tolerance. The samples of infant formula had, happily, either no detections (dairy-based formula) or a few detections that were between 1000 and 5000 times lower than the very low tolerance (soy-base formula, 7 of 527 samples). Oats and rice also had few detections and those at very low levels.

Related article:  Gary Hirshberg's Stonyfield faces hypocrisy backlash over misleading labels
In this chart the light green bar shows what was below tolerance while dark green highlights detections far below tolerance

Unfortunately, the very transparency which documents the safety of our food is grossly misused by an organic industry-supported organization called the Environmental Working Group. EWG conducts its own “analysis” of the data in which they completely ignore how the detections differ from one another and how they relate to the tolerances. Their choice to represent as “dirty” any residue, no matter how low or non-toxic, conveniently ignores the fact that similar pesticide residues are also regularly detected on the organic options that they promote. Hopefully they will refrain from such irresponsible fear-mongering this year.

So, at the risk of being like a parent who only focuses on an A- on a report card of all A+s, I looked in detail at the 1.5 percent of residues were of any potential concern. For the few detections that exceeded tolerance, most were only marginally higher and thus of very minor concern.  There were some residues detected for which there was not a tolerance for that specific crop, but in most of those cases the levels were lower than the tolerances for other crops.  The EPA also tests for some old, long-banned pesticides notorious for their environmental persistence. There were 18 detections of such materials, including three from organic samples.  Of those 18, 17 were at extremely low levels and only one was very significant (0.46ppm monocrotophos in a squash sample from Mexico).  All in all, I could only find 11 residue examples of moderate concern, which is an amazingly small number (0.045 percent).  I have posted a much more detailed analysis on Scribd. If anyone is interested I’ll be happy to email you that full summary.

So once again, the take-home message is that we have another 10,000+ reasons to confidentially enjoy our American food supply.  My congratulations to those who produce it for us.

This article originally appeared in Forbes here and was reposted with permission of the author.

Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) who has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent consultant. His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc.

Outbreak
Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
can you boost your immune system to prevent coronavirus spread x

Video: How to boost your immune system to guard against COVID and other illnesses

Scientists have recently developed ways to measure your immune age. Fortunately, it turns out your immune age can go down ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
globalmethanebudget globalcarbonproject cropped x

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...
gmo corn field x

Do GMO Bt (insect-resistant) crops pose a threat to human health or the environment?

Bt is a bacterium found organically in the soil. It is extremely effective in repelling or killing target insects but ...
favicon

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend