Pesticides and Food Safety

Posted on October 28, 2013
Strawberry Water Splash
Having worked in the research and development of new pesticides now for over thirty years, I think I can confidently say that the development side of new pesticides is providing much safer and more effective pesticides for use in the agricultural production of food and fiber.  The problem though continues to be the perception that we in the industry do not handle these materials safely and that we are providing food that is tainted with dangerous products.  The focus has been removed a little with the advent of “GMO” crops and other food safety issues that deal with microbial contamination of our food, but we have not been completely taken off of the food safety radar when it comes to pesticides.
Recently I heard a presentation by Dr. Carl Winter from the Food Science and Technology Department at the University of California, Davis.  I would like to share a few things I learned from that presentation.  A survey by the Food Marketing Institute found that 79% of  those consumers surveyed think pesticide residues pose a serious health hazard with another 17% believing that they provide something of a hazard (that is a total of 96%)! In turn regulatory sampling of food at both the federal and state levels finds that the majority of food sampled contains no residues of pesticides (64% for domestic produced and 72% for imported food), that when residues are encountered they are well within the established legal tolerances (35% for domestic and 23% for imported), which leaves us with .9% of domestically produced food in violation and 5% of imported food in violation (FDA monitoring for 2008).  The problem is tolerances are misunderstood by the public and illegal residues are not necessarily unsafe residues. Tolerances are established by estimating daily dietary exposure to pesticides, multiplying that number by 10,000 and then feeding this 10,000x quantity of pesticides to laboratory animals throughout their lifetime.  Then what happens to the laboratory animals?  Nothing!  This is called the NOEL (or no observable effect level).  Illegal tolerance levels are set at 1/10,000th of the level that still causes no issue with laboratory animals!
So what is the bottom line? Pesticides are sometimes detected as residues on foods. Exposure to these pesticides are typically far below levels of health concern.  Pesticide stewardship continues to show a lack of food safety concerns in America. We, in the industry (I mean all of production agriculture) need to continue to preach this message.  I do believe that those who make well informed food decisions and eat accordingly are the healthiest in our nation.

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