The California Department of Pesticide Regulation monitors the pesticide levels of fresh produce sold throughout the state. If they find a farm or food producer trying to bend the rules by using pesticides that are illegal -- or, in some cases, pesticides that are illegally used on specific foods -- they remove the product from the marketplace. And every year, they release a summary showing what produce is safe, and what to avoid.
Last month, the CDPR released their findings from 2014. Let's delve into them, shall we?
First, the big data: During the calendar year of 2014, the CDPR collected some 3,471 samples of more than 150 different fruits and vegetables sold in California. Of those, 40.74 percent had absolutely zero traces of pesticides. Another 52.69 percent contained the residues of one or more pesticides, but were all less or equal to established tolerances. So, in short, 93.43 percent contained pesticides levels that made a minimal health impact. That's good!
But let's talk about the other 6.57 percent. Most of that is from imported foods, mostly from Mexico. The worst offenders were the imported "Cactus Pads and Cactus Fruit" (46.7 percent contained pesticides), limes (26.5 percent), papaya (17.1 percent), and summer squash (16.7 percent). But there were also a few California-grown foods that showed up relatively high on the list: California-grown spinach showed a pesticide residue of 10 percent, nectarines had 5.7 percent, and kale accounted for 3.8 percent.
So, how worrisome is all this?
"It's very similar to past reports we've done," said Craig Cassidy, a spokesperson for the department. "This is a very good outcome we think. It shows that the produce sold in California is safe. They're random samples, but they skew towards foods that have had problems in the past."
(It should be noted: The CDPR believes they found the culprit for the high levels of pesticides in California spinach; it was grown next to lettuce that utilizes a pesticide that's legal, but not when it's used on spinach. The same kind of thing happened with kale. "That's a violation. We don't allow that produce to be sold," said Cassidy. "But we understand what was going on.")
If anything, the report shows how easy it is to import pesticide-laced produce.
"Time and time again we find illegal pesticides that we've banned in the United States," said Charlotte Fadipe, another spokesperson for the organization. "For instance, in the Mexican-grown cactus, we find the pesticide Monocrotophos, which has been banned in the U.S. since 1989. It can cause a range of health issues from nausea to permanent nerve damage."
So why are foods containing high levels of pesticides allowed into the country? "That's where it starts to get a little weird with our laws," said Fadipe. "It's not illegal for producers to ship it into the U.S., but it's illegal to sell it with the high levels."
Does buying organic eliminate the threat? Not necessarily. "[Buying organics] is a matter of choice for people," said Fadipe. "Some contained illegal amounts of pesticides, too. A very small amount, but that does happen."
While the CDPR does not go out of their way to test organics, they do keep track of the ones they do. In 2014, they tested 234 product labeled "organic." Of them, 83.33 percent were found to be completely clean of pesticides, a noticeable jump from the 40.74 percent when looking at the entire landscape of foods. But the organic label alone isn't enough to guarantee your food's completely safe: Nearly 3 percent tested positive for illegal pesticides.
Where does this all leave us consumers? "Our message would be to get it from a reputable source, from a reputable seller or grocer," said Fadipe. "Don't be afraid to ask questions."
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