2015 Pesticide Residues in Fresh Produce


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About California's Pesticide Regulatory Program

DPR Scientists sample fresh produce at all levels of trade; these scientsits are sampling habanero peppers at a large chain distribution center in Tracy. They will spend 2-3 hours working in 33-34F conditions, collecting, documenting and photographing up to 18 samples of produce for transport to the CDFA laboratories in Sacramento and Anaheim.

California has the nation's most comprehensive program to regulate and monitor pesticide use. Residue testing, which is at the core of the program, is carried out by a dedicated team of scientists and personnel from the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). For more than 3 decades, DPR's Mike Papathakis, Food Safety Coordinator - Senior Environmental Scientist (Supervisor) has helped to lead and guide the team as it carries out this valuable work on behalf of the public. Papathakis retires from state service at the end of 2016 and we wish him well.

Under the California Department of Pesticide Regulation Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program:

  • A pesticide's safety and efficacy are evaluated before it is allowed to be used.
  • All agricultural pesticide use must be reported.
  • DPR's Environmental Scientists together with California's 55 County Agricultural Commissioners (CACs) enforce pesticide use laws and regulations to ensure the proper and safe use of pesticides.
  • To protect human health, DPR's California Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program collects samples of domestic and imported produce and analyzes them for pesticide residues.

California Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program

DPR's California Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program is designed to prevent "public exposure to illegal pesticide residues" (California Food and Agricultural Code section 12532) by meeting the following goals:

  1. Monitor pesticide residues in fresh produce throughout the California food supply. DPR staff and scientists routinely 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 toxins. Additionally, in accordance with DPR's commitment to Environmental Justice, DPR food safety staff select certain fruit and vegetable commodities and certain sampling sites to reflect differences in consumption patterns among various cultural, ethnic, age, and socioeconomic groups in California.
  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 the problem.
  3. Generate sample analysis data requested by DPR's Human Health Assessment 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.

2015 Pesticide Residue Monitoring Results

In 2015, DPR collected 3,600 samples of more than 145 different fruits and vegetables intended for human consumption. These commodities were sampled at businesses in the channels of trade, including wholesale and retail outlets, distribution centers, and farmers markets. DPR's regulatory authority does not cover sampling and testing of processed produce; the California Health and Safety Code assigned that responsibility to the California Department of Public Health. Accordingly, DPR only samples and tests raw agricultural commodities derived from plants.

Both domestically grown and imported fruit and vegetable commodities were sampled. Of the 3,600 samples collected, about 58% (2,071 samples) were domestic, and about 42% (1,509 samples) were imported. Less than one percent (20 samples) were of undetermined origin. Of the domestically-produced commodities, at least 44% (906 samples) were explicitly labeled as California-grown. Of the imported commodities sampled in 2015, 984 were from Mexico, 107 were from China and 418 were from other countries.

All samples were delivered to California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) analytical laboratories, located in Sacramento and Anaheim, and analyzed using processes able to detect more than 350 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products.

Results for all 2015 Pesticide Residue Monitoring Samples

  • 39.8% (1,434 of 3,600 samples) had no pesticide residues detected.
  • 55.8% (2,010 of 3,600 samples) had one or more detected pesticide residues less than or equal to established tolerances. As in recent years, the majority of these samples had residues at less (usually much less) than 10% of the tolerance level.
  • 1.2% (43 of 3,600 samples) had one or more illegal pesticide residues in excess of established tolerances. A sample with an illegal pesticide residue does not necessarily indicate a potential health concern.
  • 3.1% (113 of 3,600 samples) had one or more illegal residues of pesticides not approved for use on the commodities analyzed. The presence of unapproved residues does not necessarily indicate a potential health concern.

Results for the 2015 U.S. Grown Samples

For all 2015 samples of U.S grown produce, 97.5% were in compliance with U.S. EPA tolerances (2,019 of 2,071 samples); similarly, commodities labeled as California grown were 97.3% in compliance with U.S. EPA tolerances (882 of 906 samples).

Results for 2015 Organic Produce Samples

In the past few years, there has been a steady increase in the amount of organically grown produce sold in California. Many consumers buy organic produce because they believe it does not contain pesticide residues. Federal and state laws and regulations concerned with organic produce do permit pesticide residue, but no more than 5% or less of the conventional level; if the residue is above that threshold, it may not be sold as "organic," but may still be sold as conventionally-grown:

"When residue testing detects prohibited substances at levels that are greater than 5 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency's tolerance for the specific residue detected or unavoidable residual environmental contamination, the agricultural product must not be sold, labeled, or represented as organically produced".

Code of Federal Regulations, Title 7, Part 205.671

Some pesticides are approved for use in organic farming; residues of those pesticides must be less than or equal to the U.S. EPA established tolerance for the pesticide on the commodity tested.

The DPR Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program does not set an annual goal for the number of organic samples to collect. In 2015, DPR collected 170 produce samples labelled organic, of which 47 were California grown. The CDFA laboratory, which analyzed those samples, reported results for the DPR organic samples to both DPR and the CDFA Organic Program. These results are summarized in the figure below.

Commodity/Country-of-Origin Combinations with the Lowest Percentage of Illegal Residues

In 2015, there were low percentages of illegal pesticide residues in samples of certain fruit and vegetable commodities produced in certain countries.

The twelve commodity / country-of-origin combinations (minimum of 30 samples) with the lowest percentages of illegal residues in 2015 were:
Commodity and Origin % of Samples with Illegal Pesticide Residues (2015)
0 % (0 of 95 Samples)
Bell Peppers
0 % (0 of 88 Samples)
0 % (0 of 82 Samples)
0 % (0 of 81 Samples)
Head Lettuce
0 % (0 of 71 Samples)
0 % (0 of 71 Samples)
Green Onion
0 % (0 of 68 Samples)
0 % (0 of 65 Samples)
0 % (0 of 62 Samples)
Dry Onion
0 % (0 of 53 Samples)
0 % (0 of 52 Samples)
Sweet Corn
0 % (0 of 45 Samples)

Commodity/Country-of-Origin Combinations with the Highest Percentage of Illegal Residues

In 2015, as in recent years, there were high percentages of illegal pesticide residues in samples of certain fruit and vegetable commodities produced in certain countries. The twelve commodity/ country-of-origin combinations (minimum of 30 samples) with the highest percentages of illegal residues in 2015 were:
Commodity and Origin % of Samples with Illegal Pesticide Residues (2015)
33.3% (14 of 42 Samples)
Cactus Pads and Cactus Fruit
31.8% (14 of 44 Samples)
16.1% (5 of 31 Samples)
11.1% (4 of 36 Samples)
10.3% (7 of 68 Samples)
Chili Peppers
9.7% (7 of 72 Samples)
8.5% (8 of 94 Samples)
Summer Squash
6.9% (6 of 87 Samples)
5.8% (4 of 69 samples)
5.6% (2 of 36 samples)
4.6% (2 of 43 samples)
4.4% (3 of 68 samples)

In addition, DPR collected 6 samples of longan fruit and 6 samples of litchi fruit imported from China. Five of the longan fruit and all six of the litchi nuts contained illegal pesticide residues.

Although illegal, most of the 2015 illegal pesticide residues were at very low levels (a fraction of a part per million [ppm]).

Significance of the Results

The findings of the California Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program have been consistent in recent years. In each of the years from 2010 to 2015, more than 93 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 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 fresh produce is in compliance with pesticide safety standards, a produce item with an illegal residue level does not necessarily indicate a potential health concern. DPR Environmental Scientists and Toxicologists evaluate each instance of 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 2015 DPR Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program Data is 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 Enforcement of Illegal Pesticide Residues

This lot of 14 pallets of napa cabbage was quarantined by DPR scientists on suspicion of carrying illegal pesticide residues, and later destroyed after the CDFA laboratory confirmed illegal residues were present.

When illegal pesticide residues (those above the U.S. EPA tolerance level or those for which no tolerance is established for a given pesticide and commodity) are found, DPR immediately investigates and quarantines the produce containing the illegal residues. The owner of a quarantined commodity has three options: securely dispose of the produce on site, transfer the produce to another site for disposal, or, in some cases, recondition the produce. Reconditioning generally requires triple-washing the entire lot of produce with the goal of reducing an over-tolerance of an otherwise legal residue or wholly eliminate an illegal residue when there is no tolerance established. The reconditioning option requires the owner to collect a sample of the produce when reconditioning is complete and have the sample analyzed by a private laboratory for the illegal pesticide residue found in the original DPR sample. If the laboratory results show that the pesticide residue is below the established tolerance or removed entirely when no tolerance is established, the owner will be allowed to sell the produce. If not, disposal of the produce will be required.

California leads North America in radish production.  Radishes are very popular as a garnish and salad ingredient. With both root and leaves being edible. these radishes were tested for pesticide residues on both the leaves and the root portion.

In addition, DPR investigators trace the movement of the produce containing illegal residues by contacting distributors, retailers, and wholesalers throughout California, obtaining copies of invoices, customs forms and other paperwork, 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. DPR and CACs 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. In 2014, DPR established a policy to identify companies that are repeatedly the first business to sell produce with illegal residues in California, meet with those companies to gain compliance, and fine companies if they continue to be the first to sell produce with illegal residues in California.

In 2015, DPR imposed civil penalties ranging from $6,000 to $15,000 against five California produce importers with a history of recurring illegal pesticide residue violations, mostly on produce imported from Mexico and China. All recent DPR fines and settlements for produce with illegal pesticide residue can be found on the Produce with Illegal Pesticide Residue Fines and Settlements web page.