In my last post, I asked "Where's the data?" — specifically the latest installment from the USDA's Pesticide Data Program, which tests thousands of food samples for pesticide residues every year. The PDP data is the basis for our WhatsOnMyFood.org website that allows you to see which pesticides are found on food (and in water), how often, in what amounts, and with what associated health risks.
After months of delay, the data is finally out. In a nod to the produce industry (who had complained about "misuse" of the data by "activist groups") the USDA included a two page "What Consumers Should Know" factsheet with the report, but otherwise the presentation of results and data is the same as it's always been. And then there's cilantro.
This was first time cilantro was included in PDP testing, and as reported by the Chicago Tribune, more than 30 unapproved pesticides were found, with 44% of samples contaminated with at least one illegal pesticide. In addition, one sample had levels of chlorpyrifos in excess of permissible amounts. Chlorpyrifos and many of the unapproved pesticides are organophosphate insecticides; research links prenatal exposure to these chemicals with cognitive disorders in children.
According to the Tribune, government officials "caution that unapproved pesticides on cilantro may not always represent a health threat." Maybe it's just me, but that's not very reassuring. Drunk driving may not always result in a car accident, but checkpoints are still a good idea.
And it's not just consumers' health we should be worried about. Whether a particular pesticide is approved for a particular crop typically has more to do with protecting the health of farmers and farmworkers applying the pesticide and/or the health of the environment than with the health of consumers eating the end product which may bear residues of the pesticide. For example, when EPA announced it was phasing out endosulfan last year, the Agency stressed it was taking the action because of "significant risks to wildlife and agricultural workers."
The point is, finding (30 different) illegal pesticides in varying combinations on close to half of cilantro samples indicates widespread pesticide misuse among growers — and nobody caught them.
Among the dark underbellies of how we regulate pesticides here in the U.S. is a near-complete lack of enforcement, and the fact that we have no national use reporting. Enforcement is handled by "state partners," typically ag departments and commissioners who are notoriously lax (if not recalcitrant) about monitoring and reporting illegal pesticide use. And EPA has no funding or mandate to require pesticide applicators to disclose what they're doing in the fields.
This kind of national agreement to fly blind is how we wind up with 44% of cilantro samples contaminated with at least one illegal pesticide, even after washing. Illegal pesticide applications are being made on a sizable chunk of cilantro fields, and the only reason we know about it is because of USDA's routine residue testing, not because enforcement agencies are out there checking what's actually being sprayed.
One common-sense solution giving us some measure of visibility (and perhaps deterrence if not enforcement) would be a national system of pesticide use reporting, in which growers are required to report what they use. California already has such a system, and guess what? In 2009 — the same year as the PDP data — there was only one reported application of an unapproved pesticide (permethrin) to California cilantro fields.
Residues, health & a broken system
And for those of you who think cilantro tastes like soap, taking this story as one more reason to hate the stuff won't sidestep the risks. It's not just cilantro: a full 3.0% of all samples examined by the USDA either tested positive for unapproved pesticides or had pesticide levels that exceed legal limits.
The majority of these violations probably don't constitute significant health threats to healthy, adult consumers, but on the other hand a recent spate of studies suggests that low-level exposures to certain insecticides like chlorpyrifos and diazinon (both found on cilantro samples) are more dangerous to children than previously thought.
More to the point, these violations, all caught at the end of the production pipe, point to something amiss out in the field. Something that we have no other way of knowing about.