2012 Pesticide Residues in Fresh Produce

SUMMARY OF RESULTS

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About California’s Pesticide Regulatory Program

California has the nation’s most comprehensive program to regulate pesticide use. Under the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) Program:

  • A pesticide’s safety and efficacy is evaluated before it is allowed to be used.
  • All agricultural pesticide use must be reported.
  • The California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s (DPR) Environmental Scientists and California’s 55 County Agricultural Commissioners enforce laws and regulations intended to ensure the proper and safe use of pesticides.
  • Domestic and imported produce are sampled and tested for pesticide residues via the California Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program to protect human health.

California Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program

DPR’s Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program is designed to meet the following goals:

  1. Monitor pesticide residues in fresh produce throughout the California food supply. DPR staff sample commonly consumed produce, giving special emphasis to fruit and vegetable commodities consumed by infants and children and to commodities that are treated with pesticides listed as carcinogens or reproductive toxicants.

    In accordance with DPR’s commitment to Environmental Justice, DPR staff intentionally select certain fruit and vegetable commodities and certain sampling sites in order to reflect differences in consumption and among ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

  2. Identify specific fruit and vegetable commodities that have a higher incidence of illegal pesticide residues. DPR usually increases sampling of commodities that have a history of higher incidence of illegal residues, to better understand the extent of a potential problem.

  3. Generate sample analysis data requested by DPR’s Medical Toxicology Branch to help them assess the dietary risk of certain pesticides.

  4. Help keep produce with illegal residues out of the marketplace. DPR’s pesticide residue monitoring program is directed toward enforcement of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) tolerances. A "tolerance" is the highest residue level of a particular pesticide that is legally allowed on a particular commodity. U.S. EPA sets tolerances based on crop residue trial data and the potential risks to human health posed by the pesticide. If illegal pesticide residues are detected on a sample of produce, DPR immediately investigates and removes that produce from sale.

2012 Results

In 2012, DPR collected 3,501 samples of more than 160 different fruits and vegetables. All sampled commodities were derived from plants (no animal products) and were raw agricultural commodities (not processed)1. DPR collected the 3501 samples from the channels of trade, including wholesale and retail outlets, distribution centers, and farmers markets.

Both domestic and imported produce were sampled. Of the 3501 samples collected, 67.8 percent were domestic (2,373 of 3501 samples), 31.9 percent were imported (1,117 of 3,501 samples), and 0.3 percent were of undetermined origin (11 of 3,501 samples). Of the domestic, 1210 were samples of more than 120 different California grown fruit and vegetable commodities.

All samples were analyzed in California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) analytical laboratories located in Sacramento and Anaheim using multiresidue screens that can detect more than 200 pesticides and pesticide breakdown products.

For all samples collected in 2012:

  • 57.5 percent of the samples had no pesticide residues detected (2,012 of 3,501 samples).
  • 38.9 percent of the samples had residues that were within the legal tolerance levels (1,361 of 3,501 samples).
  • 2.7 percent of the samples had illegal residues of pesticides not approved for use on the commodities tested (96 of 3,501 samples). In each case, there were no established tolerances for one or more of the pesticides found on the commodity tested.
  • 0.9 percent of the samples had illegal pesticide residues in excess of established tolerances (32 of 3501 samples). A produce item with an illegal residue level does not necessarily indicate a health hazard.

Pesticide residues within legal tolerances were found in 38.9 percent of the samples (1361 of 3,501 samples). As in recent years, the majority of these samples had residues at less than 10 percent of the legal tolerance level. Illegal residues were found in only 3.6 percent of the samples (128 of 3,501 samples). Of these, 75.0 percent (96 of 128 illegal samples) had residues of a pesticide not approved for use on the commodity (no tolerance established) and 25.0 percent (32 of 128 illegal samples) had residues that were in excess of the tolerance level. For the samples of California grown produce, 98.1 percent were in compliance with U.S. EPA tolerances (1187 of 1210 samples).

In 2012, certain fruit and vegetable commodities grown in certain countries had a high percentage of illegal pesticide residues. The eight commodity/country-of-origin combinations with the highest percentage of illegal residues are:

Commodity and origin % of samples with illegal residues
(2010 and 2011 combined)
Yardlong Beans
Mexico
30.4 % (14 of 46 samples)
Cilantro
United States
16.7 % (9 of 54 samples)
Snow Peas
Guatemala
11.8 % (4 of 34 samples)
Chili peppers
Mexico
11.5 % (6 of 52 samples)
Limes
Mexico
11.3 % (12 of 106 samples)
Tomatillos
Mexico
11.1 % (11 of 99 samples)
Ginger
China United States
5.5 % (3 of 55 samples)
Spinach
United States
5.6 % (8 of 143 samples)

Most of the 2012 illegal pesticide residues were at very low levels (a fraction of a part per million). Nonetheless, when illegal pesticide residues are found (those above the tolerance level or those in which no tolerance is established for the pesticide detected on the commodity tested) DPR immediately investigates and removes the produce containing the illegal residues from sale.

DPR traces the distribution of the produce containing illegal residues by contacting distributors throughout California, imposing quarantines and conducting additional sampling as needed. If during trace-back it is determined that the produce containing an illegal pesticide residue was grown in California, the County Agricultural Commissioner in the county where the produce was grown will investigate to determine the source of contamination.

In some cases, the owner of the commodity has the option of reconditioning the quarantined produce to remove the illegal residues. Before releasing it from quarantine, DPR verifies that reconditioning removed the illegal residues. If that cannot be done, the produce must be destroyed.

DPR and County Agricultural Commissioners have authority to levy civil penalties for illegal use of pesticides. DPR also has the authority to levy civil penalties against anyone who packs, ships or sells produce with illegal pesticide residues. For example, in 2011, DPR imposed a $10,000 civil penalty against a California produce importer with a history of recurring illegal residue violations, mostly on produce imported from Mexico. In addition, DPR is actively working with the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and County Agricultural Commissioners to identify and eliminate potential sources of illegal residues. DPR also collaborates with trade organizations and grower groups, encouraging them to educate their constituents about preventing pesticide residues in their commodities.

Significance of the Results

DPR’s pesticide residue monitoring program is designed primarily to meet the goal of preventing "public exposure to illegal pesticide residues" (California Food and Agricultural Code section 12532). For that reason, DPR’s pesticide residue monitoring data are not statistically representative of the residues typical for a particular pesticide, commodity, or place of origin. Some sampling bias may be incurred by intentionally concentrating on such factors as commodity, place of origin with a history of violations, or a large volume of production or importation. Nonetheless, the findings of the California Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program have been consistent in recent years. From 2007 to 2012, more than 96 percent of produce samples either had no detected pesticide residues or pesticide residues well below the allowable tolerances. Pesticide residues that are found are usually at levels of a fraction of a part per million (ppm). In most years, less than 4 percent of all the samples analyzed have illegal pesticide residues.

While the overall goal of DPR’s regulatory program is to ensure that all food is in compliance with pesticide safety standards, a produce item with an illegal residue level does not necessarily indicate a health hazard. DPR Environmental Scientists and Toxicologists evaluate each illegal pesticide residue to determine if there are possible health concerns. The results from years of DPR residue monitoring document the overall safety of produce grown and consumed in California.

The 2012 Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program Data are available for downloading on DPR’s website at www.cdpr.ca.gov. Click on "A-Z Index" and then go to "Residue Monitoring Program."

DPR Pesticide Residue Monitoring Improves

In 2012, DPR improved its capacity to detect pesticide residues.  The CDFA analytical laboratory in Sacramento, which analyzed 47.1 percent of DPR’s 2012 Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program samples, replaced the “old” Organophosphate (OP), Organochlorine (OC) and N-methyl carbamate screens with two new analytical techniques, LC/MS (liquid chromatography / mass spectrometry) and GC/MS (gas chromatography / mass spectrometry). With LC/MS and GC/MS, the Sacramento laboratory can detect residues of pesticides recently registered by U.S. EPA and California. These “newer” pesticides have chemistries difficult to detect with the “old” multiresidue screens. In addition, the Sacramento laboratory can now detect lower residue concentrations of older pesticides (some still registered for use and others no longer registered) than they could with the “old” screens. With LC/MS and GC/MS, the Sacramento laboratory in 2012 was able to detect more than 270 different pesticide residues, including pesticide breakdown products.

The CDFA analytical laboratory in Anaheim, which analyzed the other 52.9 percent of the 2012 DPR samples (1850 the 3501 samples), used the “old” OP, OC and N-methyl carbamate multiresidue screens for the analysis of all their 2012 DPR samples.

As expected, the addition of LC/MS and GC/MS increased the overall proportion of DPR samples on which pesticide residues were detected.  In the Sacramento CDFA laboratory, which used the “new” LC/MS and GC/MS screens, at least one pesticide was detected in 64.3 percent of the 2012 DPR samples they analyzed (1061 of 1651 samples). In comparison, the Anaheim CDFA laboratory, which analyzed all samples with the “old” multiresidue screens, detected at least one pesticide residue in only 23.1 percent of the 2012 DPR samples they analyzed (428 of 1850 samples)

The “new” LC/MS and GC/MS screens also increased the proportion of DPR samples on which illegal pesticide residues were detected. The Sacramento CDFA laboratory detected at least one illegal pesticide residue in 5.27 percent of the 2012 DPR samples they analyzed (87 of 1651 samples). In 43 of those, all illegal residues were detected using LCMS and would not have been detected in the Anaheim laboratory. Conversely, the Anaheim CDFA laboratory detected at least one illegal pesticide residue in only 2.2 percent of the 2012 DPR samples they analyzed (41 of 1850 samples).

In 2013, the Anaheim CDFA laboratory will begin analyzing all fruit and vegetable samples with LC/MS and the OP and OC multiresidue screens. In 2014, the lab is scheduled to replace the OP and OC screens with GC/MS. DPR looks forward to fully implementing the new technology to further strengthen its ability to detect the widest possible range of pesticides at consistently low levels.


1Sampling of processed foods is the responsibility of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Caslifornia Department of Public Health.