News Background: Information on Pesticides and Food Safety

Contact Info: 

Matt Raymond (raymond@ific.org) and Laura Kubitz (kubitz@ific.org

Recent publications by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and Consumer Reports question the safety of consuming conventionally grown fruits, vegetables, and foods containing crops grown with pesticides.

The International Food Information Council Foundation offers the following information and resources on this topic. 

Facts and Figures on Pesticide Use and Safety

  • The U.S. EPA develops strict limits (or tolerances) for residues at 100 to 1,000 times lower than levels are at which health impacts might occur. These tolerance levels considered safe based on average daily food intake by adults and children.
    • These acceptable safe levels of pesticide residues in foods that are found not to be harmful are established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for each type of pesticide, based on considerations of both the population as a whole, as well as subgroups such as children. 
  • FDA and USDA share responsibility for monitoring levels of pesticide residues on foods.
    • Although most pesticide residues are typically well below tolerance levels before leaving the farm gate, consumers can take further steps to reduce their potential exposure to any remaining residues on fruits and vegetables, such as washing produce before cooking or consuming.
  • Farmers use pesticides only as necessary and within the strict rules established by the EPA.
    • With the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops, farmers have more choices in sustainable weed management, and can select herbicides that break down more rapidly and therefore have less impact on the environment than older herbicides.
  • Biotechnology has played an important role in the reduction and more precise use of pesticides, and allowing for use of more environmentally friendly herbicides.
    • From 1996-2011, biotech crops have collectively reduced global pesticide applications by 1.04 billion pounds of the active ingredient.
  • Despite common perceptions, organic farming, just like other forms of agriculture, uses pesticides. There are more than 20 natural chemicals commonly used in organic agriculture that are approved by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).
    •  However, in the case of both organic and conventional produce, the levels of pesticide residues detected are very low – far below that which USDA and EPA have deemed to be safe for human consumption – and not at a level to warrant health concerns.

Expert Quotes on Pesticide Use:

  • “The U.S. EPA evaluated 2,4-D for carcinogenic effects in 1988, 1992, and again in 2004. Each evaluation has concluded that 'the data are not sufficient to conclude that there is a cause and effect relationship between exposure to 2,4-D and non- Hodgkin's Lymphoma.' 2,4-D was categorized as 'Group D - not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity' in 2004. In studies with mice, rats and dogs where 2,4-D has been fed directly to these animals for up to two years, no evidence for carcinogenicity was found. Another group at the WHO, the FAO/WHO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues, has also supported the safety and continued use of 2,4-D. There is no indication that 2,4-D should be of concern in terms of dietary exposures.  Residues of 2,4-D are rarely found in foods, and when found are very low.” – Henry Chin, Food Safety & Risk Communication Expert, Henry Chin & Associates.
     
  • “Tolerances are enforcement tools, not safety standards.” Carl Winter, PhD, Director of the FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist, University of California, Davis
     
  •  It is the amount of exposure to a chemical that determines the potential for harm, not simply its presence or absence:
    • The mere presence of a pesticide residue is not appropriate to justify the recommendation to avoid conventional or consume only organic produce. Such a recommendation can come only after exploring the risk that actual exposure to the pesticide residue poses to human health.  After all, organic farming uses pesticides, too.” – Carl Winter, PhD, Director of the FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist, University of California, Davis, Food Insight, 2011.
       
  •  “Consumers have nothing to fear or to feel guilty about if they choose to purchase conventional forms of produce on the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list. My and others’ research demonstrates that the existing regulatory approach for pesticides, including a safety review and establishment of appropriate pesticide application practices, adequately protects the public.”  - Carl Winter, PhD, Director of the FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist, University of California, Davis, Food Insight, 2014

IFIC Foundation Resources for more information:

External Resources: