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USDA releases annual pesticide report

by Joan Murphy | May 26, 2011

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture released an overdue 2009 Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary May 25, but not without an environmental group criticizing the produce industry for lobbying against the report.

Eighteen produce trade organizations wrote U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack April 27 to express concern that the yearly pesticide residue data on fruits and vegetables may be misused by activist groups and the media to discourage people from consuming produce.

“While the USDA is not responsible for intentional mischaracterization by others, we strongly encourage USDA to provide the American public with a report that clearly reflects the strength of the regulatory system and the safety of products used to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to consumers,” the letter said.

The USDA’s just-released 194-page report charts pesticide residue tests for fresh and processed fruit and vegetables, meat and poultry, grains, catfish, rice, specialty products, and water for 2009.

A little over 80 percent of the total samples collected in 2009 were from the following fresh and processed fruits and vegetables: apples, asparagus, canned beans, cilantro, cucumbers, grapes, green onions, lettuce (organic), oranges, pears, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, sweet corn (fresh on-the-cob/frozen), sweet potatoes and tomato paste.

“This report shows that overall pesticide residues found on foods tested are at levels below the tolerances established by [the Environmental Protection Agency],” the report states in a section, “What Consumers Should Know.”

“In 2009, residues exceeding the tolerance were detected in 0.3 percent of all samples tested and residues with no established tolerance were found in 2.7 percent of the samples,” the report said.

It also encouraged consumers to eat fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal and advised them to rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in water.

The USDA tried to consider how the report was used when writing the consumer section and in a letter in the front of the report, but the agency is charged with taking an objective view and cannot take an advocacy position, said Michael Jarvis, a USDA spokesman.

The Environmental Working Group praised USDA for releasing the report and for not downplaying its findings, despite the produce industry’s lobbying campaign.

“We are gratified that the agency resisted an unprecedented lobbying campaign by the pesticide and produce industry to get the government to spin the test results and downplay consumer concerns about pesticide contamination,” EWG President Ken Cook said in a May 25 press statement. “It is the first time we have seen the produce industry go to such great lengths to do the pesticide industry’s dirty work.”

The group has filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the USDA to supply all communications with produce and pesticide industry representatives to shed light on whether the Alliance for Food & Farming used its marketing grant from California officials to support its lobbying efforts.

“We’re getting the information together,” said Mr. Jarvis, referring to EWG’s FOIA request.

EWG also plans to plug in the latest findings to its annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides, which ranks produce according to pesticide residues, that should be released in the next few weeks.

A spokesman for the United Fresh Produce Association refrained from commenting on the recent report.