The public's growing fears about potentially harmful pesticide residues in food are misplaced, according to federal officials, who maintain that the threat posed by these agricultural chemicals is vastly overstated.
Such reassurances, made repeatedly in the past few weeks, are an attempt to counter charges by consumer groups that government efforts to monitor food for these compounds are, at best, inadequate.
In hopes of allaying some concerns, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently released 12 months worth of data from the agency's pesticide monitoring program. The results, officials say, demonstrate that the nation's food supply is "safe."
"The public thinks that it is consuming large amounts of very dangerous pesticides. (That) is a myth," said Ronald M. Johnson, FDA's Western District director. "The food supply is safe . . . and our goal is to show consumers this fact."
As part of the agency's ongoing surveillance, about 15,000 samples--representing a broad range of domestic and imported commodities--were analyzed for as many as 150 pesticides that may be present. More than 50% of the items sampled are imported foods, in particular those products from countries where FDA suspects pesticide abuses.
The laboratory tests found that 1% of the items surveyed did contain illegal levels of farm chemicals. (There are 300 pesticides approved for use in this country, but many are considered obsolete and are no longer manufactured or sold, Johnson said.)
Another 3% of the tested foods were classified as "technical violations," or containing residues of pesticides not specifically approved for use on a particular crop. For example, applying a chemical on cabbage that is permitted only for the treatment of lettuce. Even so, most of the technical violations were found to be within a range considered safe to consume, according to FDA officials.
At the same time, the report also found that 39% of all foods tested contained some kind of residues, but at levels below those permitted by federal regulations. And no chemicals were found in 57% of the foods tested during the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30.
The FDA's pesticide monitoring is augmented by a similar program conducted by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. In fact, the state tests about as many samples of produce as does the federal government. The agencies coordinate efforts to ensure that there is little overlap.
However, Johnson concedes that the FDA must address current perceptions about chemicals in food, whether or not they are based on scientific fact.
"Consumers' and our critics' expectations exceed our capabilities. We cannot analyze every apple or orange that comes to market," he said. "But the program we have in place assures that residues in food do not pose a risk to the public."
Supermarket companies share some of the blame for unnecessarily raising public concerns about pesticides, Johnson said.
For example, several chains have been heavily promoting the fact that they employ private laboratories to test fruit and vegetable shipments for pesticides. The use of these labs is then touted heavily in advertisements and at the produce counter.
This kind of program "continues the hype of pesticides and raises concerns that we don't feel are legitimate concerns," Johnson said. Though not in opposition to private testing for pesticides, Johnson, nevertheless, said they are somewhat misleading.
"The advertisements (for these programs) said that there were no detected pesticide residues, but they only looked for seven chemicals. They then say that there aren't any of the seven, but there could be hundreds there," he said. "Some retailers--to their credit--are using these programs but not promoting it in the media."
In addition to the FDA's pesticide monitoring, the agency employs a Total Diet Study that also analyzes for chemical residues. However, this program differs in that it tests food prepared under conditions similar to those in the home. Once the food is in its edible form--or after cleaning, peeling and cooking--it is then sampled for illegal compounds.
"We find lower levels in the finished food (than in its raw state). And a lot of this has to do with the processing process, such as removing the outer leaves of a lettuce head or the washing of vegetables in general. This helps remove some of these compounds," he said.
At the cooked stage, the FDA'S Total Diet Study indicates that consumers' average exposure to pesticide residues is 1/100th of allowable levels established by international scientific groups, Johnson said.
Johnson acknowledges, however, that many agricultural chemicals are systemic--eventually entering the inner cells of a fruit or vegetable--and thus cannot be removed by washing alone.
Despite Johnson's claims, the FDA's critics insist that the total number of samples analyzed by the agency is insufficient and does not provide an accurate picture of pesticide residue in food. They also fault the agency for laboratory methods that are only capable of detecting about 50% of those chemicals in use today. Further, consumer groups charge that the federal government has underestimated the health threat to the public posed by decades of exposure to minute amounts of these compounds in foods.