Independent laboratory testing of produce for pesticide residues, a process now in use at several supermarket chains, is flawed and unnecessary, according to a state agriculture official.
"(Private) programs are not increasing the health of consumers," said Jim Wells, special assistant for pest management in the California Department of Food and Agriculture. "And they are not finding any (pesticide residues) that we don't find."
Wells made his remarks at a recent press conference at the Biltmore Hotel sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based grocers trade group.
The leading produce certification program, which features a testing service, is offered by Oakland-based NutriClean.
The comments by Wells are but the latest salvo in an increasingly heated debate over current usage and regulation of pesticides.
The controversy only promises to intensify as government officials and agricultural interests begin a concerted effort to counter criticism from those who claim that excessive, and potentially dangerous, amounts of farm chemicals are applied to crops.
"We have not yet found a chemical that poses risks at the residue levels that we are finding (in food)," Wells said. "Yes, we have removed pesticides (from the market) based on (farm) worker exposure but not because of dietary exposure."
In July, Ralphs Grocery Co. enlisted NutriClean to monitor much of its produce shipments for pesticides. The program is designed to encourage growers to reduce farm chemical usage as well as detect any illegal levels that may be present at the retail level.
Supermarkets that employ NutriClean often publicize the system by identifying--with shelf tags or advertisements--those commodities certified as having "no detected pesticide residues."
In the past several months NutriClean, on a voluntary basis, has provided the Department of Food and Agriculture with evidence of pesticide misuse that its labs unearthed. However, Wells said his agency was only able to confirm that two of the seven reported incidents were, in fact, violations.
Linda Brown, a NutriClean executive, said that the important issue was that the state labs did confirm two violations that were not previously detected through the government's monitoring program.
"We found things that slipped through the state's dragnet and they did confirm it," Brown said. "The fact that they couldn't identify the others doesn't mean that (violations) weren't there. They probably couldn't get to the same shipment because it was no longer available."
Wells also criticized the private testing firms for not being as thorough as the state while, at the same time, making commercial claims about residues.
California analyzes 15,000 randomly selected produce items each year for illegal levels of farm chemicals, he said. No other state has a similarly ambitious program and only the federal government's detection efforts are as extensive.
In 1987, or the last year for which data is available, only 0.3% of those samples analyzed by the state contained pesticides in excess of allowable levels. Another 1.2% contained compounds not certified for use on that particular crop and, thus, were considered technical violations. And 79.8% of the samples tested contained no residues. The remainder, or 18.7%, were found to have allowable levels of farm chemicals.
"The dose makes the poison," he said. "If an individual is not subject to dangerous amounts then there is no problem.
"Critics of the food supply would have you believe in the presence/absence approach," he said. "Namely, if you apply a pesticide then it is present. And if it is present then it is dangerous. . . . This alarms unnecessarily."
Wells also took issue with the private testing firms' accuracy. He said state chemists detected the presence of pesticides on produce NutriClean had previously certified.
'Got His Facts Wrong'
"Consumers don't really know if (privately tested produce) has pesticide residues or not," Wells said.
NutriClean's Brown said, "He's got his facts wrong."
She also stated that NutriClean uses laboratory procedures that are more efficient, and that the company tests for a greater numbers of chemicals than the California Department of Food and Agriculture does.
"(Wells' criticism) is to be expected," Brown said. "The state can't come out and announce that food has more pesticides residues than what it has been saying all along. . . . The federal government is finding more pesticide violations than the state and the federal procedure is the one we also follow."
Jan Gray, senior vice president of Ralphs Grocery Co., was present during Wells' criticism of private produce testing. He said the supermarket chain's executives are pleased with NutriClean's work and will continue the program.