Single servings of some popular fruits and vegetables--including peaches, apples and green beans--contain pesticide residues that are higher than the government deems safe for young children, Consumers Union reported Thursday.
But the prominent consumer group, publisher of Consumer Reports, cautioned that parents should not immediately empty their fruit and vegetable bins and all those important nutrients onto the trash heap.
"Our findings certainly don't mean that parents should stop giving their children plenty of healthful produce," said Edward "Ned" Groth, Consumers Union's technical policy and public service director. "But these findings do suggest that parents might want to be careful about the amounts and types of fruits and vegetables they serve their children."
After analyzing extensive federal data, the consumer magazine also said that, contrary to widespread opinions among U.S. shoppers, imported produce often has lower levels of toxic residues than domestically grown produce.
Chemical companies and grower groups, meanwhile, dismissed much of the study, published in the March issue of Consumer Reports, as unsound science and said they feared that parents would react by eliminating produce from children's diets.
"Reports like this alarm parents and may drive them to serve fewer--not more--fruits and vegetables for dinner," said Jay Vroom, president of the American Crop Protection Assn., a chemical industry trade group. "This is just what the doctor doesn't order."
Moreover, said Carl Winter, a UC Davis food toxicologist, vast amounts of data suggest that consumers' overall exposure to pesticides is at such a low level that health risks are minimal.
Still, in recent years concerns have grown that long-term exposure to pesticide residues could cause developmental damage in children. Such concerns triggered passage in 1996 of the Food Quality Protection Act. Under that law, the Environmental Protection Agency is reassessing weed and bug killers with the aim of better shielding children from potential toxins.
"While this unprecedented scientific review of potential health threats from pesticide residues is underway, it is important to note that the U.S. food supply is still the safest in the world, and that the benefits of eating a balanced diet outweigh any risks," the agency said in a statement.
"Consumers who still wish to take precautions should always wash their fruits and vegetables thoroughly, and some consumers may choose to purchase organically grown food."
For its study, described as the first of its kind, Consumers Union analyzed the results of 27,000 tests on 27 foods conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1994 to 1997. Included were samples of about 5 pounds each of fresh and processed foods from the United States and several other nations that export to this country. USDA researchers prepared the foods much as a consumer would--rinsing apples and peeling bananas, for example.
The Consumers Union researchers established a "toxicity index" based on the average level and frequency of residue and the toxicity of the chemical. Using that method, Groth said, researchers could literally compare apples and oranges.
In general, processed foods had lower residues than fresh.
Scoring consistently high on the toxicity scale were winter squash, apples, grapes, spinach, pears and green beans. Topping the list were fresh peaches, which were found to have high levels of methyl parathion, a highly toxic organophosphate chemical. That nerve agent and similar chemicals are headed for extinction under the new food law, the EPA has indicated.
One California peach grower said he was surprised because so many farmers are moving away from using harsh chemicals.
"Last year we didn't use any methyl parathion on our fresh-pack peaches," said Cliff Sadoian of his 1,500-acre farm in Dinuba. "We know what the public's attitude is. This whole chemical deal is in transition from old, harsh chemicals to newer, safer materials."
The study noted that USDA tests found almost no samples with more of any chemical residue than the law allows. However, the government draws a distinction between legal "tolerances" for chemicals and residue limits that ensure that foods are safe to eat. For many pesticides, Consumers Union said, the "legal" limit exceeds the safe limit by a factor of 100 or more.
Most of the tolerances for high-risk organophosphates, for example, were set decades ago, before concerns arose about developmental effects on children, said Charles M. Benbrook, a longtime consultant in the field who partnered with Groth on the Consumers Union study.
Benbrook, based in Sandpoint, Idaho, said the study "is mostly a good news story." Foods with less residue included apple juice, bananas, broccoli, canned peaches, milk, orange juice and canned or frozen peas and sweet corn.