Safety Whose

Safety starts with growers; most are prudent with pesticides for many reasons. One is cost. Pesticides are expensive, so farmers use them judiciously to remain profitable. Second, successful growers project toward the future. By using too much pesticide with one year's crop, they may cause crop damage in the future. Some pesticide residues remain in the soil. Third, today's farmers are more aware than ever of the environment (wildlife, groundwater, soil quality)—their livelihood depends on it. Most farmers are trained in the responsible, legal use of agricultural chemicals; some pesticides must be applied only by people certified or licensed to do so.

Pesticide manufacturers bear responsibility for the effects of pesticide use among consumers, farm workers, and the environment. If research indicates that pesticide use would not meet standards for toxicology, crop residues, or environmental impact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can stop or change its use. Several government agencies regulate and monitor pesticide safety in food:

• The EPA regulates the manufacture, labeling, and use of pesticides—and sets maximum levels, or tolerances, for pesticide residues. Before a pesticide can be used on crops, it must be thoroughly tested to assure that it's safe for the environment and for human health. If approved, the EPA may limit its use—amount, frequency, or crop—and require that these limitations be listed on the product label. Growers who misuse pesticides, even mistakenly, risk having their crop seized or destroyed. And the grower may be charged with a civil or a criminal lawsuit.

Regulations established in 1996 under the Food Quality Protection Act set even stricter safety standards. Among other measures, this law further protects children and infants from pesticide risk, requires testing and information about any estrogenlike effects of pesticide residues, and considers exposure of pesticides to drinking water.

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors pesticide residues in most foods (not meat, poultry, and eggs)—both raw and processed—and enforces the tolerance levels set by the EPA. If residues exceed these levels, the food can be seized or destroyed, and a lawsuit may be filed. Any pesticide residues that remain on raw foods are usually removed during washing or peeling.
  • Like the FDA, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) monitors pesticide residues and enforces tolerance levels for meat, poultry, and eggs.
  • Several states, including California, that grow many fruits and vegetables have their own regulations, too.

Tolerances, or maximum levels, for pesticide residues are set in parts per million, parts per billion, and parts per trillion. For example, 1 part per million would mean 1 gram of residue is the maximum allowed in 1 million grams of food. That equates to 1 cherry in about 20,000 1-pound cans.

Tolerances for pesticide residues are legal limits. In most foods, levels are well below that. Tolerances are a hundred to a thousand times lower than the amount that might pose a health risk, so there's a very wide margin of safety. FDA testing has shown that foods rarely exceed limits, and many samples are below the tolerance level or show no residues at all. To pass through U.S. customs, imported foods must meet the same stringent standards set for foods grown domestically.

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