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Government Testing on Pesticide Residue Levels in Food is Inadequate, GAO Report Says

Nov 14, 2014

According to a report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) testing for pesticide residue on food is lacking. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all imported fruits and vegetables are tested by the FDA for pesticide residue, the report said. Among domestic fruits and vegetables, less than one percent are tested.

The FDA's program for testing is not “statistically valid” federal auditors said. This prevents it from meeting one of its mandates, which is to “determine the national incidence and level of pesticide residues in the foods it regulates.” Washington Post reports. The decision by the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to not test many common pesticides for which the federal government has imposed strict limits is also worrisome, the GAO said. The agencies were criticized for not disclosing this information in their annual reports.

Washington Post reports that although the FDA and USDA are not legally obligated to test for certain pesticides, they are responsible for enforcing the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum limit on residue. Food products are subject to seizure if they violate these limits.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) called for the GAO review of the pesticide program, Washington Post reports. “GAO’s report indicates that the monitoring programs used by FDA and USDA are falling short of their objectives. Improvements are needed in pesticide residue monitoring,” Tonko said. He added that the agencies “will need to devote more resources to pesticide residue monitoring to implement GAO’s recommendations.”

Pesticides residues in poultry, meat and processed egg products are tested by the USDA. Although their level of testing was not criticized in the report, the GAO did note that testing rates are not as high as they used to be. The USDA decreased the number of domestic and imported samples from 8,000 annually to 1,900 between 2000 and 2009. The number did increase, however, to 2,100 between 2010 and 2011.

The FDA responded to the GAO by saying it would consider employing a superior testing model to obtain “statistically significant” outcomes but did not commit to this plan due to cost concerns, Washington Post reports.

The GAO had asked the FDA and the USDA to disclose the names of the pesticides it did not test for, but the FDA refused to do this because it said users would be able to “more easily circumvent” the program if this information was revealed. The USDA said it would comply and disclose the pesticides in its annual report. GAO said one of the most concerning issues is that the annual reports falsely indicate that residue levels are low and violations are uncommon.

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