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  • Writer's pictureJennifer

Pesticide Violations: Not Just an Import Issue

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

Although you can’t “test your way to food safety”, testing can serve as a verification that your food safety system is performing as intended and/ or that you are in compliance with applicable regulations. Testing becomes complicated and contentious when applied to microorganisms, a topic worthy of substantial discussion. Testing is much more straightforward, and yet perhaps underutilized, when it comes to chemical contaminants that are more likely to be homogeneously distributed in products, such as pesticides.

In the United States, pesticides, and their application (and applicators) are well regulated. There has been less interest in testing produce grown in the US for pesticide residues than there has been for testing produce grown in countries with different approvals or limits. However, there has been a recent uptick in state regulatory testing, specifically by the state of California, that has revealed that even in the US, produce may occasionally exceed MRLs (maximum residue levels) or contain pesticides that are not approved for that crop.

Another facet of pesticide testing is compliance with the National Organic Program, for those products that are certified organic. Although ‘organic’ is a marketing claim, not a food safety issue, the program is still a regulatory program that is administered through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Organic certifiers, whether part of state governments or private entities, can collect samples to analyze for pesticides. If residues are found that are not approved for organic use, or are found above approved levels, the organic certification of the producer can be suspended or revoked. Much can be said about the intersection between organic and food safety, perhaps in future posts.

Prudent food safety and regulatory compliance professionals should leverage publicly available information to determine if a product they are handling has been associated with pesticide issues. Two fantastic resources include the USDA Pesticide Data Program and the FDA dashboard.

Each year, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service tests thousands of products for pesticides as part of the USDA Pesticide Data Program. Fortunately, the vast majority are in compliance. A review of Appendix J shows the product-pesticide combinations that were reported to FDA due to violations, either because the residues exceeded the tolerances set by EPA, or because a pesticide was detected for which there is no tolerance listed in the US. The appendix also shows if the product was imported or not, and reveals that pesticide violations are not limited to imports. When compared to the ratio of domestic versus imports tested, imported foods were more likely to be violative, but the difference is close—close enough to warrant about as much attention to domestic products as those that are imported. The table below shows the breakout:

Total # Domestic Imports

Sampled 10,127 (100%) 67% 30%

Exceed tolerance 54 (0.53%) 54% 44%

No tolerance set 374 (3.7%) 59% 40%

Another resource is the FDA dashboard. Although the dashboard only shows 10 recalls for ‘pesticides’ over the past 10 years, this does not reflect the true number of recalls due to pesticides. The “reason for recall” is an open text field so one must search for each pesticide by name (which this author did not do!) to get an accurate count. As a general term, “pesticide” associated recalls were nearly evenly split between class II and class III recalls. These recall classifications do not require public notification, which may lead to a lack of awareness of their occurrence. The dashboard doesn’t indicate if the product was imported or not, although countries of origin are sometimes noted.

When the FDA Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) rule was enacted a few years ago, it brought increased attention to violative pesticide residues (at least associated with imported product). From a public health perspective, fortunately, most violative pesticide residues are unlikely to cause acute human illness. However, the limits are established for a reason and compliance with regulations is not optional. Importers should review if their suppliers have been placed on import alert due to pesticide violations, and/or if USDA AMS has associated the imported commodity with pesticide violations. Testing, either by the supplier or by the importer, is one tool that FDA provides as a way that importers can verify that the food they are importing meets US food safety standards.

In addition to considering pesticide testing for produce imported into the US, many companies in the US who are exporting to other countries need to verify that their products comply with the sometimes stricter requirements of the destination country. The EU is notorious for having pesticide residues that some argue are a non-tariff trade barrier. However, the EU does have a default 10 ppb (.01 mg/kg) for pesticides that are not approved. In contrast, if a pesticide is not approved in the US, there is no tolerance.

As weather conditions including the emergence of new pests and/ or wind shifts, and as crop rotations, production practices, and even agricultural neighbors change, there may be increased potential for “drift” or the inadvertent presence of an unintended pesticide on a crop. Testing is a useful component to understand and address regulatory risks associated with pesticides before they disrupt your business.

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