There’s a small chance that the apple you ate in 1994 had traces of as many as 10 different pesticides.
The plus side is that very few apples had that kind of dose, and the traces of each pesticide were far below those deemed by the government to be acceptable. The worrisome side is that people still don’t fully understand the health dangers from that kind of mix.
The information comes from the Agriculture Department, which has been testing produce since 1991 under the Pesticide Data Program. Created in response to a scare over the pesticide Alar in apples, the program faces possible extinction.
The House passed a spending bill for the Agriculture Department in June that cut out the $11.5 million needed to run the program in 1997. The Senate bill, awaiting final passage, restores the money. Negotiators will have to decide the program’s future.
The arguments for ending the program look like those for keeping it.
Farm groups and pesticide makers want it because it shows the food supply has very low levels of pesticides - well below thresholds set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Nearly 39 percent of the nearly 7,600 samples tested in 1994 had no detectable residues, even though scientists can measure down to the tiniest part. Just under 2 percent of imported produce and just over 1 percent of U.S.-grown produce had residues that would violate standards.
“The data has been our friend,” said Dennis Stolte, pesticide specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. The American Crop Protection Association, which represents pesticide makers, agreed.
“To the extent this information is valuable in reassuring public confidence in the safety of the food supply, ACPA would be sad to see this program removed from the budget,” said Jay J. Vroom, the group’s president.
The House decided that if the pesticide levels were so low, why not just kill the program. After all, the Food and Drug Administration already enforces pesticide laws, testing 10,000 food samples a year.
The EPA says the data help it do a better job of figuring the health risk from pesticides.
The fruits and vegetables are taken from warehouses and tested after they’ve been peeled, scrubbed and otherwise been made ready to eat.
The EPA advises the Agriculture Department on which pesticides to examine. Because of a 1993 report by the National Academy of Scientists, the government has been looking more closely at the special impact of pesticides in the diets of infants and children.
Also, the agency is beginning the difficult task of looking at total exposure from all pesticides rather than regulating each pesticide as though it were the only one being used. After all, 36 percent of the samples had traces of more than one pesticide.
Compared with previous years, there were more multiple residues, and 1994 was the first time residue hit the double digits, although only 2 apples were found with that many pesticides.
Unlike in previous years, however, the department hid that fact. Past reports identified which fruit or vegetable had multiple residues and said what the three most common pesticides were, leading to news stories about pesticide-laced apples.
The Environmental Working Group, which routinely crunches raw data from the Agriculture Department, sorted out the apples and oranges.
Larry Elworth, the department’s top adviser on pesticides, said the new approach was more scientifically valid, because it showed the “distribution” of multiple residues across the range of all produce.
Environmentalists such as the Environmental Working Group also say the program should be kept, especially because of growing concern over exposure to multiple residues.
Although the allowed pesticide levels may be too high by their reckoning, at least there’s knowledge. “With a little bit more refinement, and a little bit harder looking by this program, you could really get a pretty good picture of what pesticides are on these fruits and vegetables when people eat them,” said Richard Wiles, the group’s pesticide specialist.