2013 Pesticide Residues in Fresh Produce


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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 (DPR) Program:

  • A pesticide's safety and efficacy are 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 analyzed 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 select certain fruit and vegetable commodities and certain sampling sites in order to reflect differences in consumption patterns among ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

  2. Identify specific fruit and vegetable commodities that have a higher incidence of illegal pesticide residues. DPR will increase sampling of commodities that have a history of higher incidence of illegal pesticide 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 commodity. U.S. EPA establishes tolerances based on crop residue trial data and the potential risks to human health posed by the pesticide. If an illegal pesticide residue is detected on a sample of produce, DPR immediately investigates and removes that produce from sale and the channels of trade.

2013 Pesticide Residue Monitoring Results

In 2013, DPR collected 3,483 samples of more than 155 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 3,483 samples from the channels of trade, including wholesale and retail outlets, distribution centers, and farmers markets.

Both domestically grown and imported produce were sampled. Of the 3,483 samples collected, 65.9 percent were domestically grown (2,296 of 3,483 samples), 33.4 percent were imported (1,164 of 3,483 samples), and 0.7 percent were of undetermined origin (23 of 3,483 samples). Samples of domestically grown produce included 1,182 samples of 110 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 multi-residue screens that can detect more than 300 pesticides and pesticide breakdown products. The Anaheim laboratory analyzed 51.6 percent of the 2013 samples (1,798 of 3,483 samples) and the Sacramento laboratory analyzed the other 48.4 percent (1,685 of 3,483 samples).

For all produce samples collected in 2013:

  • 43.53 percent of the samples had no pesticide residues detected (1,516 of 3,483 samples).
  • 51.51 percent of the samples had residues that were within the legal tolerance levels (1,794 of 3,483 samples).
  • 3.99 percent of the samples had illegal residues of pesticides not approved for use on the commodities analyzed (139 of 3,483 samples). In every case, there was no established tolerance for each confirmed illegal pesticide residue on the commodity.
  • 0.98 percent of the samples had one or more illegal pesticide residues in excess of established tolerances (34 of 3,483 samples). A sample with an illegal pesticide residue does not necessarily indicate a potential health hazard.

Pesticide residues within legal tolerances were found in 51.51 percent of the produce samples DPR collected (1,795 of 3,483 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 4.97 percent of the samples (173 of 3,483 samples). Of these, 19.7 percent (34 of 173 illegal samples) had pesticide residues that were in excess of established tolerance levels for the commodity analyzed and 80.3 percent (139 of 173 illegal samples) had residues of pesticides not approved for use on the commodity analyzed (no tolerance established). For samples of California grown produce, 97.8 percent were in compliance with U.S. EPA tolerances (1,156 of 1,182 samples).

In 2013, 182 of the 3,483 fruit and vegetable samples collected by DPR were labeled organic and 1.1 percent of those organic produce samples (2 of 182 samples) had illegal pesticide residues. When illegal residues are detected on produce labeled organic, CDFA's Organic Program is notified.

In 2013, certain fruit and vegetable commodities produced in particular countries had high percentages of illegal pesticide residues. The ten commodity/country-of-origin combinations with the highest percentage of illegal pesticide residues were:

Commodity and Samples
Commodity and origin % of samples with illegal residues
Cactus Pads and Cactus Fruit
37.1 % (13 of 35 Samples)
33.3 % (11 of 33 Samples) a
Snow Peas
25.0 % (8 of 32 Samples)
Summer Squash
24.2 % (8 of 33 Samples)
18.3 % (11 of 60 Samples)
17.1 % (7 of 41 Samples)
17.0 % (17 of 100 Samples)
Chili Peppers
9.76 % (4 of 41 Samples)
7.84 % (4 of 51 Samples)
4.07 % (5 of 123 Samples)

a 21.2 % (7 of the 33 samples) were illegal due to low-level residues of pesticides not approved for use on cilantro. 12.1 % (4 of the 33 samples) were illegal due to very low levels of DDE, a breakdown product of the pesticide DDT. DDT, a legacy pesticide, has not been used in the U.S. since 1972, yet low levels of it and its breakdown products may still found in soil previously treated with the pesticide.

Most of the 2013 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 U.S. EPA tolerance level or those in which no tolerance is established for the pesticide detected on the commodity analyzed), DPR immediately investigates and removes the produce containing the illegal residues from sale and the channels of trade.

DPR traces the movement of the produce containing illegal residues by contacting distributors, retailers, and wholesalers 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 (CAC), in the county where the produce was grown, will investigate to determine the source of contamination. Frequently, DPR scientists assist CAC staff with their investigation.

In some cases, the owner of the produce has the option of reconditioning the quarantined produce to remove the illegal pesticide residues. Before releasing the produce from quarantine, DPR verifies that reconditioning removed the illegal pesticide 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 pesticide residue violations, mostly on produce imported from Mexico. In addition, DPR is actively working with the U.S. 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 2009 to 2013, more than 95 percent of produce samples collected by DPR had no detected pesticide residues or pesticide residues well below U.S EPA 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 potential health hazard. DPR Environmental Scientists and Toxicologists evaluate each illegal pesticide residue to determine if there are potential health concerns. The results from years of DPR residue monitoring document the overall safety of produce grown and consumed in California.

The 2013 DPR 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 Continues to Improve

In 2013, DPR continued to improve its capacity to detect pesticide residues by using the analytical technique LC/MS (liquid chromatography / mass spectrometry) in the Anaheim laboratory, in conjunction with existing OP and OC screening methods. LC/MS is a more modern and more sensitive technique to screen fruits and vegetable samples. In addition, the introduction of this technology allows technicians to detect approximately 100 more pesticides. The net result is that the laboratory can now detect more than 300 pesticide compounds.

In 2014, the Anaheim lab is scheduled to replace the OP and OC screens with GC/MS. DPR looks forward to fully implementing the new GC/MS technology to further strengthen the lab's ability to detect the widest possible range of pesticides at consistently low levels. The Sacramento laboratory has been using the LC/MS and GC/MS analytical techniques since 2012.

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