The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) is enhancing its ability to monitor illegal pesticide residues on fresh produce with a boost in funding for the state laboratory that analyzes samples, DPR Chief Deputy Director Chris Reardon announced today.

The funding will expand a pilot project launched in 2009 that detects residues of recently registered pesticides difficult to find with older screening techniques. The new technology is known as liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LC/MS).

“Our goal is to ensure that fresh produce sold in California is in compliance with pesticide safety standards,” Reardon said. “We typically find no detected pesticide residues on a majority of our samples, and residues discovered are generally well below allowable limits set by the federal government.”

When illegal residues are found, DPR immediately removes the produce from sale, he emphasized. Although illegal, the residues usually are so low that they pose no acute health risk. The legal limits incorporate a wide margin of safety.

DPR currently allocates to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) about $4.5 million annually for laboratory services, including analyzing produce for illegal pesticide residues; testing air, ground and water monitoring samples; and analyzing samples collected for enforcement and illness investigations.

The 2011-12 state budget includes an extra $2.5 million to expand LC/MS screening by buying new equipment and hiring staff at CDFA’s laboratories in Sacramento and Anaheim. Ongoing costs for the expanded testing will be $1.9 million a year.

DPR receives no state general funds. Pesticide residue monitoring and all other DPR programs are funded by a 2.1-cents-per-dollar “mill assessment” collected on sales of pesticides at the wholesale level and fees for registering pesticides and obtaining licenses.

"California farmers give our consumers daily access to a safe and nutritious food supply," said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross.  "These improvements at our labs will help us ensure that our pesticide safety system is able to detect newly developed pesticides with the utmost confidence.”

Today’s announcement coincides with the release of DPR’s 2010 pesticide residue monitoring data. In 2010, DPR collected 3,020 samples of more than 170 types of domestic and imported produce. DPR has the nation’s largest state program for pesticide residue testing. Overall, 97.6 percent of produce samples tested complied with allowable limits, including:

  • 64.8 percent (1,957 samples) had no pesticide residues detected.
  • 32.8 percent (991 samples) had residues within allowable levels.
  • 2.4 percent (72 samples) had illegal residues that DPR scientists determined did not pose significant acute health risks.

Safety record

The 110 California-grown commodities tested had an even better safety record. Of the 1,134 samples of California produce, 98.6 percent, or 1,118 samples, complied with allowable limits.

“We collect samples from large grocery stores, mom-and-pop shops and wholesale outlets throughout the state,” Reardon explained. “In addition to most frequently consumed fruits and vegetables like apples and lettuce, we sample tomatillos, cactus leaves and other produce used in ethnic cooking.”

In 2009 and 2010 combined, DPR detected illegal pesticide residues most frequently on tomatillos, limes, papayas, chili peppers and bitter gourds from Mexico; spinach from California; and ginger from China.

In 2010, six commodities - bok choy, celery, table grapes, kale, peaches and spinach - were tested for residues by both the multiresidue screen technology and LC/MS.

In 2011, LC/MS will be used to test apples, strawberries, peaches, potatoes, spinach and long beans.

Civil penalties can be imposed against repeat illegal pesticide residue offenders. For example, California-based distributor Cal Fresco LLC was fined $10,000 in August 2010 for importing produce from Mexico with residues of insecticides not registered for use on these crops. Although illegal, the residues were at such low levels that they did not pose a health risk. A press release about this enforcement action is posted at: http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/pressrls/archive/2010/100805.htm.

The 2010 pesticide residue monitoring data and previous years are posted on DPR’s website at: http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/enforce/residue/rsmonmnu.htm

A fact sheet, “Pesticides and food: how we test for safety,” which includes information about how consumers can reduce exposure to pesticides in food, is posted at: http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/dept/factshts/residu2.pdf