Consumers want to be assured the produce they feed their families is safe. To address these concerns, the Pesticide Data Program, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service, annually tests thousands of samples of fruits and vegetables as well as other products for pesticide residues. Each year, the data shows the extremely low levels of residues are not a food safety risk, and the presence of such residues does not pose a safety concern.
The Pesticide Data Program
Started in 1991, the Pesticide Data Program (PDP) has tested commodities in the U.S. food supply. The data is provided to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate pesticide use for agricultural production. The EPA works with the USDA to identify the foods to be tested on a rotating basis. The PDP is the only statistically defensible, national program that provides unbiased data that reflects dietary exposure to pesticides through food consumption.
The EPA sets safety standards (known as ‘tolerances’) for pesticide residues that legally may remain on or in food. These tolerances are the upper limit of pesticide residues allowable on commodities. When setting tolerances, the EPA considers all possible routes of exposure through food, water, and home environments. The agency uses PDP data to ascertain exposure through food.
The data is published in an annual summary that reflects actual residues present in food grown in various regions of the United States and overseas. The most recent PDP data was released in February 2014 and confirmed that overall pesticide residues found on foods do not pose a safety concern. More than 99 percent of the products sampled had residues below EPA tolerances.
Sample Collection and Analysis
The PDP collects foods by employing a sound statistical program and tests them using the most current laboratory methods. Sample collection methods require purchasing fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural products close to the point of consumption. The samples are collected at terminal markets and chain store distribution centers throughout the country. They are sent to laboratories where they are tested and analyzed for pesticide residues.
Because the packaging size of products sampled is sometimes more than what the laboratories need to do the testing, an unintended benefit of the program is that excess samples are donated to local organizations, including food banks, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers, shelters for battered women, and churches. Most charity food organizations rely almost exclusively on canned or dried goods. The excess PDP produce samples may be the only supply of fresh fruit or vegetables available to recipients. Donating the excess product was a simple idea and a rewarding way to reduce food loss and waste.
In addition to routine sampling and testing, the PDP also works with industry stakeholders to address issues that present a challenge. In 2012, the emergence of the brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) in the Mid-Atlantic region threatened the production and marketing of apples, pears, and peaches. The BMSB causes lesions and damage to fruit, rendering it unmarketable—a devastating blow to growers. Use of the pesticide Bifenthrin was the most effective method to combat stink bugs; however, this pesticide was not registered for use on apples and peaches.