Pesticides: Hidden Ingredients

article image
Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
The FDA has found an alarming number of pesticides in our store-bought produce.

Your average apple doesn’t come with an ingredients list,
but if it did, you’d need a degree in chemistry to read it.
Azinphos-methyl, carbaryl, chlorpyrifos,
endosulfan, thiabendazole: these are just a few of
the dozens of pesticides detected on red, raw apples by the
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as part of its ongoing
Total Diet Study (TDS). Four times a year the FDA goes
shopping, buying multiple samples of 261 different food
items from supermarkets, grocery stores and fast-food
restaurants in alternating geographic regions. Like foods
are combined, prepared for the table, then analyzed for
pesticide residues, radionucleotides, industrial chemicals
and other toxic elements.

Items range from produce, meats and milk to tacos, tuna
casserole and commercial chocolate chip cookies. Not
surprisingly, fruits and vegetables rank first as the most
chemically treated commodities. Perhaps more unexpected is
the fact that DDT is the most frequently detected
poison-found in a whopping 22% of the foods tested in 1999
— despite a 25-year ban on its use in the U.S. While this
notorious organochlorine is still used by some foreign
nations, mainly for mosquito control, FDA and EPA officials
attribute the prevalence of DDT and its metabolites in our
food largely to the pesticide’s resilience. Today’s crops
continue to absorb the remains of the 1,350,000,000 pounds
of DDT dumped on U.S. soil during the past 30 years.

Another banned organochlorine, shows up in
about 14% of our food is further proof of the staying power
of these persistent organic pollutants.

Rounding out the top-five offender list are endosulfan, one
of only three still legal organochlorines (it comes up for
review this year), and two organophosphates:
chlorpyrifosmethyl and malathion.

In all, 55 pesticides were found in the FDA’s 1999 “market
baskets,” though all were reportedly well below regulatory
limits. Current tests can detect residues at 1 part per

Even so, some fruits and veggies stand out for both the
variety and sheer number of residues found in their flesh
and on their skins. The top ten, in descending order of
contamination and based do TDS data for the years 1991
through 1999, are:

1. Apples
2. Collards
3. Green peppers and spinach (tie)
4. Peaches
5. Celery
6. Strawberries
7. Tomatoes
8. White potatoes
9. Cucumbers
10. Sweet cherries

In addition to its Total Diet Study, the FDA also regularly
monitors both imported and domestic food items for residue
before they enter the market to be sure that producers,
both at home and abroad, are complying with pesticide
limits set by the EPA. In 1999, the FDA detected pesticide
residues on nearly 40% of the domestic foods and 35% of the
foreign items tested, though all but about 4% were within
EPA safety standards.

Detailed results of the FDA’s residue monitoring and market
basket studies are available on the Web.