A leading Southern California food retailer is the nation's first major chain to independently test fresh produce for potentially harmful pesticide residues.
Ralphs Grocery Co., which announced the program two weeks ago, is analyzing nine fruit and vegetable items for the presence of agricultural chemicals.
The company's program, which comes at a time of heightened public concern over pesticide residues on food, is being conducted by NutriClean. Ralphs, with 129 stores, is the largest company to contract with the Oakland-based firm for the produce analyses.
The testing is meant to supplement pesticide monitoring being done by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the California Department of Food and Agriculture. However, federal and state agencies have been under fire recently for not doing enough to protect the public from chemicals used by farmers.
"We began the testing because of all the concerns over food safety and, particularly, the concern over pesticides in fresh produce," said Charles Bergh, Ralphs senior vice president. "We thought we should do something to supplement the FDA's safety program in order to assure our customers that the produce at Ralphs is safe."
Public opinion polls have repeatedly found consumers to be highly wary of pesticides. Earlier this year, a national survey commissioned by the Food Marketing Institute, a grocers trade group, found that 75% of those queried said "residues such as pesticides and herbicides" were a "serious hazard." Another 20% responded that the chemicals were "something of a hazard."
At present, Ralphs is testing produce, both domestic and imported, immediately upon arrival at its warehouse facilities. The results of these laboratory analyses, completed in 48 hours, will be accumulated in order to provide a picture of which growers have the best safety record. In time, the data will indicate the specific farms that provide the least chemically tainted commodities.
Those fruit and vegetables shipments selected for testing, however, are not held in warehouse storage until the lab tests are completed. And, in fact, the produce may have already been purchased by shoppers by the time a residue problem, if any, is found.
Recalls are logistically possible but unwieldy, mainly because of the time lag between the shipment's arrival and the test's completion.
"Samples are randomly taken at dockside and the product is then released to the stores. What we are doing is building a (chemical residue) history by vendor and product," Bergh said. "If we find an inordinate amount of pesticide residue, that is when the red flag goes up and we will then be hesitant to buy again from these sources. If we detect chemicals the first time then we can stop purchasing from that supplier the second time around."
Ultimately, Ralphs plans to deal only with those farmers who have the least amount of detectable pesticides on produce.
Stan Rhodes, NutriClean president, said that his firm is sampling Ralphs' produce for 14 chemicals. Neither the federal nor state government is "routinely" testing for the pesticides selected for detection by Ralphs, according to Rhodes.
In the future, the list will be expanded to include those chemical compounds most likely to be used on certain commodities.
The extent of illegal pesticide levels on produce is in debate, as is the cancer threat posed by these residues.
The Packer, a food industry trade publication, recently obtained internal FDA documents that stated that 1.5% of the domestic produce tested by the agency contained illegal pesticide residues. Of the imports tested by FDA, illegal chemical residues were discovered in 3.4% of the produce sampled. And Mexican products, according to the report, contained the most violations, or illegal residues, in 3.7% of the fruit and vegetables analyzed.
An entirely different picture is painted in a recently published book, "Pesticide Alert: A Guide to Pesticides in Fruit and Vegetables" (Sierra Club Books: $15.95). The authors, Karen Snyder and Lawrie Mott, claim that 38% of the domestic produce tested between 1982 and 1985 contained pesticide residues. The figure for imports in that time frame was 64%. Mott and Snyder, however, failed to disclose how many of the residues found during the three-year period violated government pesticide regulations.
Even so, the introduction of produce testing at a supermarket chain the size of Ralphs, with its attendant purchasing power, is likely to put further pressure on agriculture interests to moderate pesticide use or develop alternatives in order to control bugs, molds and weeds, said Rhodes, who also has six smaller food chains as clients.
"When a big retailer comes in, they carry such punch that they alone can change the pesticide landscape in California," Rhodes said. "Ralphs has such a huge volume that they can, and did, affect the decision on how 3,500 acres of cantaloupes are being grown. That's more than two million boxes of melon."