The U.S. Government Accountability Office is an independent nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. They examine if taxpayer dollars are being used properly. Every so often, the office releases a report that admonishes a public office for doing a bad job. Earlier this month, it was the FDA's and USDA's turn, specifically for how they're protecting us --or rather, not -- from dangerous pesticides.
First, it's important to distinguish what government agency does in terms of pesticides.
Pesticide regulation is overseen by three agencies: The FDA, the USDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA establishes how much of a certain pesticide is allowed on a product. The FDA and USDA take those recommended levels and actually enforce them. The FDA handles imports, and the USDA tackles domestically-grown foods.
So, just where are the agencies failing?
The biggest area of concern are simply the number of foods being tested. In the time span of the GAO's examination (2008-2012) the USDA did not test for all of the pesticides the EPA is concerned about. The FDA, meanwhile, only tested one-tenth of one percent of all imported shipments for violations. While it's impossible for agencies to test anywhere near 100%, there is a statistical threshold that needs to be met in order for testing to be adequate, and both numbers fall well below it.
Another issue is the lack of transparency. One of the problems the GAO had was that, in their annual report, the FDA doesn't disclose what pesticides they do not look for. On the one hand, this makes sense, seeing as you don't necessarily want to let farmers know what you're not looking for. On the other hand, this is evidence of the simple lack of communication that extends to other areas of the government's pesticide regulation.
"The EPA isn't doing enough to disseminate the rules in other languages to foreign growers," said Sonya Lunder from Environmental Working Group. In other words, foreign growers aren't necessarily trying to sneak pesticides through American customs so much as they aren't sure what pesticides aren't allowed. "Several years ago, [a study] went to Costa Rica and interviewed farmers about what pesticides they're using and looking at what pesticides are being monitored, and found a real disconnect."
One of the pesticides the FDA does not test for is glyphosate, more widely known as Roundup, the weed-killing product created by Monsanto. The thing is, because of the genetic modifications to plants that allow for them to develop a "resistance" to the pesticide, glyphosate can be sprayed directly on without killing the plant. This isn't exactly great news.
"Instead of applying [glyphosate] before the seeds or after harvest, you can spray it five or six times throughout the growing season," said Lunder. The result is that the residue detected is higher than any possible tolerance dictated by the EPA. So, it's just not monitored. "They actually went back and raised some tolerances because they realized the amount wasn't high enough," said Lunder. This is unusual, since the tolerances are already quite high. "Tolerance [levels] are like a 500 mile-per-hour speed limit. It's designed to catch really egregious violations, not based on what would be safe."
There's also the oddly hypocritical nature of some of these regulations. For example: "There are U.S. companies being told by the EPA they can't make a pesticide for use in the U.S. anymore," said Lunder, "and they're still making the pesticides and selling it to other countries." Since the FDA only inspects one-tenth of one percent of the food being imported, there's a good chance the pesticides find their way back into our borders.
As far as to whether or not the agencies are going to heed the advice of the GAO and change their ways? "Increasing the amount of monitoring the FDA would actually take a budget, and that seems less likely," said LDLF "But, you know, we're always hopeful."