WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2016 - USDA’s Pesticide Data Program is looking for help from the agricultural industry in explaining to the public that the food supply is safe.
In a meeting last week, USDA officials who run the program told stakeholders they want to do a better job of publicizing the results of the annual collection of pesticide residues on food. They also seemed receptive to the idea of including risk assessment information.
The program began in 1991. In 2014, USDA tested 15 different fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as salmon, oats, and some frozen and canned foods and infant formula. The voluntary program focuses on foods most likely to be eaten by infants and children.
The 2014 report, which was released at the end of last year, found that “over 41 percent of the samples tested had no detectable pesticide residue, and over 99 percent of the samples tested had residues below the tolerances established by the EPA.”
Dan Botts, vice president for industry resources at the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said the European Food Safety Authority includes a risk assessment in its annual report on pesticide residues.
For the PDP, “Whether that would be an EPA process, or a USDA/EPA risk assessment group, that would be extremely valuable,” Botts said.
USDA’s Ruihong Guo, deputy administrator for science and technology in the Agricultural Marketing Service, agrees. “It sounds like the risk assessment is something we need to explore,” she said. “To the degree that we can explain how we generate our data and we think the data should be used and the limitations, I think that’s really worth exploring.”
And Diana Haynes, director of AMS’s monitoring programs division, said that PDP is trying to employ social media and other avenues, such as working with media organizations, in order to address “scaremongering” tactics. A particular concern of meeting attendees, who represented fruit and vegetable associations and pesticide manufacturers, as well as government regulators and scientists, are reports like the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list. (No one from EWG was at the meeting.)
EWG looked at the same data from 2014 and said that USDA tests “found a total (of) 146 different pesticides on thousands of fruit and vegetable samples.” Additionally, it said, “The pesticides persisted on fruits and vegetables tested by USDA – even when they were washed and, in some cases, peeled.”
EWG also releases a list called the “Clean 15.” This year, avocadoes were the “cleanest” item on that list.
Julie Manes, head of government relations at the United Fresh Produce Association, urged the PDP to put information “in the proper context. Obviously, we realize there are limits to what you can do with respect to how other people interpret the information. It can be misconstrued. It can be somewhat twisted.”
Said Haynes, with AMS: “We’re really trying to communicate the message that 99 percent of food samples do not have residues over the tolerance or residues existing where there isn’t a tolerance. We’re actually using that word ‘safe’ now.” Echoing the language in the report, she said, “It’s very important to eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables.”
Guo noted that “you can use the data to argue certain points, so I think it’s a freedom of speech kind of situation.”
“We’ll do our best to emphasize how data show how American food is safe,” she said. “This is one area where we need to work together to get the message across.”
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