Posted: 10:24 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013

Pesticides found in California produce

produce pesticide testing
produce pesticide testing

John Fowler/KTVU


A large number of fresh fruits and vegetables have been found to contain quantities of pesticides in markets across the Bay Area.

KTVU has learned about surprise inspections being conducted by state investigators to stop pesticide violations. KTVU also conducted testing to determine how much pesticide is being found on produce.

San Francisco’s bustling wholesale produce mart sells over a half billion dollars of fruit and vegetables every year. Much of the produce is bound for restaurants and stores across the Bay Area.

With the volume of fruits and vegetables being sold, a question arises: Is the food safe to eat?

Jorge Pihilla of Stanley Produce told KTVU he has faith in the companies he works with.

“Yes, our shippers and our vendors we trust them,” said Pihilla. But should you?

KTVU discovered what some call the hidden secret on much of the produce you buy. KTVU cameras were present for a recent surprise inspection .

State investigator Alberto Marin is an experienced inspector and selects the produce as carefully as any shopper. But he and his team are looking for the hidden danger.

While produce may look good, sometimes the problem is not something that can be seen by the naked eye. Pesticide violations often can be revealed only by high-tech testing.

California has the most rigorous and comprehensive pesticide regulations in the United States. This random and un-announced test is just part of a system to keep your food safe.

Of course, California and the U.S. also import fruits and vegetables from many other countries. According to Charlotte Fadipe from the State Department of Pesticide Regulation, that’s where problems tend to arise.

The state says about 40 percent of all samples have at least some amount of pesticides in them.

“Maybe three to four percent of the time we will find produce that has pesticides beyond the legal limit,” said Fadipe.

KTVU discovered pesticide violations are up sharply over last year. The state fined one Watsonville strawberry grower three months ago for intentionally using an illegal pesticide on his entire crop.

Federal health officials insist pesticide benefits outweigh any risks. But even small, legal amounts can add up to unacceptable levels according to Kirstin Schafer of the Pesticide Action Network .

“We are still using over a billion pounds of pesticides a year in this country,” said Schafer. “It’s too much and it’s not a problem that we cannot shop our way out of.”

Marin said his team often selects more imported items because China, Spain, Guatamala, Peru, Mexico and other countries are more lax with pesticides.

“There is a risk over there in having produce that has more [pesticides] than we accept here,” Marin explained.

KTVU wanted to find out what was in the produce mart samples. Investigators bagged, tagged and took 18 samples for advanced analysis.

At a special state laboratory, they test over 3,600 samples a year at the cost of about $1,000 per test. But the taxpayers do not cover the costs, since fees on pesticides sold in California take care of it.

KTVU watched as each sample was chopped and pureed. Then a little of each sample goes through advanced machines that search for the chemical signatures to any of the 320 pesticides being checked for.

“It’s like every person has their own fingerprint, every compound has their own fingerprint,” said environmental scientist Poonam Chandra.

The results indicated that 15 out of 18 samples or 83 percent tested positive for pesticides. That’s double what’s expected, although none exceeded federal standards.

The highest quantity of pesticides was found on California-grown oranges at a little over a third, the limit for a fungicide.

Ironically two of three samples of tomatoes from Mexico were found to be free of pesticides. And California strawberries had residue from eight different pesticides.

Schafer said the quantities were unsettling.

“Now, each one of those might be at a level that is well below the safety level,” said Schafer. “But we don’t know very much about that combination and what that means in your body.”

The bottom line is trust, because state inspectors can’t test everything. You can limit your risk to pesticide exposure by knowing grocer, checking labels, washing your fruit and vegetables and asking questions.

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