The most recent survey of pesticides in foods (USA) found that more than 98 percent of the tested foods had no or acceptable (safe) levels of pesticide residue. These figures are great overall. But the results for organic foods are not so good. Organic fraud is one of the most common types of food fraud. Karen Constable of Food Fraud Advisors took a deep dive into the results of the survey to see how organic foods performed.
About the Pesticide Data Program
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) surveys the nation’s food supplies every year, checking for residues of pesticides, pesticide by-products and environmental contaminants, which are chemicals no longer used as pesticides, but known to persist in the environment.
The 2019 survey tested almost 10,000 samples of 21 types of fresh, frozen and canned fruit and vegetables, plus tomato paste, dried garbanzo beans, rice and oats. The foods were sampled throughout the year, across the country from wholesale markets, retail outlets and distribution centres. Both domestic and imported foods were sampled. Each commodity was tested using sensitive analytical tests to check for residues of approximately 500 pesticides and around 20 environmental contaminants.
The official report (find it here ) contains excellent and detailed information about the sampling systems. The report also provides a broad overview of results for commodities and discusses the differences between domestic and imported products. But it does not specifically discuss the results for organic foods.
Results for Organic Foods
In 2019 and 2020 the USDA acknowledged widespread problems with compliance in US organic certification programs. In the USA, organic certification is regulated by the USDA and their organic program is the only organic certification scheme that may be used.
Among the 9,697 samples that were tested in 2019 by the USDA in their pesticide data program, 845 (8.7%) of them were labeled as ‘organic’. The pesticide survey is not designed to sample specifically for organic foods and the official report does not report results for organic foods as a category.
However, the raw data from the survey is publicly available and can be analysed to find out which foods were labeled as ‘organic’ but contained residues of non-organic-approved pesticides.
For the 2019 survey there were 845 samples labeled ‘organic’ and two that were labeled ‘pesticide free’. Both of the products labeled ‘pesticide free’ contained detectable levels of pesticide, but at safe* levels. Around one quarter of organic-labeled foods contained residue(s) of at least one pesticide and just under half of those had unsafe** levels. There was a small number of notable samples (1%) that contained either very many residues or unsafe levels of multiple pesticides.
- 26% of ‘organic’ samples had detectable levels of pesticide(s)
- 9% of ‘organic’ samples had unsafe** levels of at least one pesticide
- 1% of ‘organic’ samples contained four or more pesticides at unsafe** levels
- 1% of ‘organic’ samples contained traces of more than 10 pesticides
26 percent of ‘organic’ samples had detectable levels of pesticide(s)
Every sample in the USDA survey was tested for approximately 500 pesticides and environmental contaminants. Of the 845 samples that were labeled as ‘organic’, 220 (26%) contained detectable levels of at least one pesticide.
Note that not all organic-approved pesticides are included in the tests. The main organic-approved pesticides that were included in 2019 were Spinosad and Spinosad A.
9 percent of ‘organic’ samples had unsafe* levels of at least one pesticide
Of the 845 organic products that were tested, 72 (9%) were found to contain at least one pesticide at levels that exceed or were presumed to exceed the EPA ‘tolerances’ for that pesticide. The tolerances are ‘the maximum amount of a pesticide allowed to remain in or on a food’.
7 ‘organic’ products contained four or more pesticides at unsafe* levels
There were 7 products (<1%) that were found to contain unsafe levels of four or more pesticides. Five of those seven products were fresh basil (4 grown in USA, 1 imported from Mexico). The other products were fresh cilantro (grown in USA) and white basmati rice imported from India.
Only one of those seven products contained detectable levels of the organic-approved pesticides Spinosad or Spinosad A.
5 ‘organic’ samples contained residues of more than 10 pesticides
Of the 845 samples that were labeled ‘organic’, 5 (<1%) contained detectable levels of more than 10 different pesticides. These five products were locally grown fresh basil, fresh mustard greens, imported basmati rice and imported frozen strawberries.
How does this compare with previous data?
|Proportion of ‘organic’ samples that contained detectable levels of at least one pesticide||22%||26%|
|Proportion of ‘organic’ samples that contained at least one pesticide at ‘unsafe’ levels||2%||9%|
|Worst performing commodities***|| Frozen cherries
*** Note that none of these commodities were sampled in both 2014 and 2019
Is this food fraud?
Organic foods should not contain residues of non-organic-approved pesticides. But the presence of such residues is not necessarily the result of food fraud.
Analytical tests can detect extremely low levels of pesticides. Low levels of pesticides can be present on samples due to accidental contamination, such as by blowing from another field during application, or by being transferred from other produce during transport or storage.
Where residues are present at higher or unsafe** levels, there is a greater likelihood that the pesticide(s) were applied to the food deliberately. Interestingly, of the seven ‘organic’ foods that contained four or more pesticides at unsafe levels, all contained multiple other residues at lower levels, but only one contained any residue of the organic-approved pesticide Spinosad/SpinosadA.
A properly controlled organic supply chain should not result in produce that contains non-approved pesticides at unsafe levels. It is reasonable to assert that such produce has been deliberately treated with the pesticide(s), such as would occur during conventional growing or post-harvest processes. It would be reasonable to conclude that the products were therefore conventionally grown rather than being authentically organic.
In this survey between 1 and 9 percent of the organic samples appear to have been grown using conventional methods but were marketed as ‘organic’. This mislabeling represents food fraud.
*safe levels: For the purposes of this report, ‘safe’ = any analytical result that was reported as being detected but not annotated as being (i) Residue at with presumptive violation – No Tolerance, (ii) Residue with a presumptive violation – No Tolerance (iii), Residue with a presumptive violation – Exceeds Tolerance. The tolerance is a limit set by the EPA that is ‘the maximum amount of a pesticide allowed to remain in or on a food’.
**unsafe levels: For the purposes of this report, ‘unsafe’ = any analytical result that was reported as being detected and annotated with either (i) Residue at with presumptive violation – No Tolerance, (ii) Residue with a presumptive violation – No Tolerance (iii), Residue with a presumptive violation – Exceeds Tolerance. The tolerance is a limit set by the EPA that is ‘the maximum amount of a pesticide allowed to remain in or on a food’.