Fresh and frozen imported strawberries highly contaminated with pesticides, report says

Some fresh, frozen and canned nonorganic fruits and vegetables are contaminated with concerning levels of pesticides, according to an investigation by Consumer Reports, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that provides product reviews and ratings for its subscribers.

Some of the highest levels of pesticides were found in produce imported into the United States, according to the report released Thursday. Sixty-five of 100 samples of the most contaminated produce were imported, with 52 of those samples originating from Mexico.

The majority of the highly contaminated imports were strawberries, typically the frozen variety, the report said. Because they grow low to the ground and are therefore more accessible to bugs, strawberries often top lists of foods contaminated with insecticides.

Imported and domestic green beans also tested high for pesticides, even samples that were labeled organic, “the only organic food we found with significant levels of pesticides,” said James Rogers, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports.

Nearly all the tested green beans were contaminated with acephate, an organophosphate insecticide that is considered a “possible human carcinogen.” The US Environmental Protection Agency prohibited the chemical for use on green beans in 2011.

The Food Industry Association, which supports all facets of the industry, told CNN that “all pesticides go through an extensive review process by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure they are safe for human consumption and to establish tolerances, the maximum residue limit permitted on or in a food.”

The US Food and Drug Administration is responsible “for monitoring and enforcing EPA’s tolerances for pesticides in food, including foods imported into the U.S.,” said Hilary Thesmar, the association’s chief science officer and senior vice president of food and product safety, via email.

The Alliance for Food and Farming, which represents organic and conventional farmers, told CNN via email that it is “important to remember that a farmer’s first consumer is their very own family so safety is always their highest priority.”

“In addition to decades of government data verifying the safety of fruits and vegetables, nutritional studies confirm the immense health benefits of consuming conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables,” the group said.

Repeat offenders on the contamination list

The top culprits in the Consumer Report list were similar to other lists of pesticide-laden produce, including the annual “Dirty Dozen” list published by the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, an environmental and health advocacy organization that has done the annual report since 2004.

Popular choices such as blueberries, strawberries, bell peppers, potatoes, green beans and kale and mustard greens were top culprits in both the EWG and Consumer Reports lists, while Consumer Reports called out watermelon for containing oxamyl.

Oxamyl, which was also found on bell peppers, is a carbamate, a group of pesticides that affect the functioning of the nervous system, according to the EPA. Carbamates were developed to replace older, problematic chemicals such as organophosphates, which date back to the 1850s.

One of the most frequently used compounds in the world, organophosphates are the main components of nerve gas, herbicides, pesticides and insecticides and are also used to create plastics and solvents. Studies have linked organophosphates to low sperm count, childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and “neurodevelopmental deficits in childhood, including reduced IQ, perceptual reasoning, and memory,” according to the EPA.

The EPA considers both organophosphates and carbamates a high or first priority for review under the Food Quality Protection Act.

As a group, pesticides have also been linked in studies to preterm births, congenital malformations such as neural tube defects, spontaneous abortions and an increase in genetic damage in humans. Exposure to pesticides has also been associated with heart disease, cancer and other disorders.

Critics point to the EPA’s lack of action as a key reason concerning pesticides are frequently found despite a growing amount of scientific evidence that even low levels could be harmful.

“The EPA could certainly be doing a better job of setting more accurate safe limits based on the latest science,” said Alexis Temkin, EWG’s senior toxicologist. “Some of these pesticides require immediate, swift action by the EPA to consider these potential health risks more strongly.”

Consumer Reports’ Rogers agreed: “We don’t think specific pesticides safety levels the EPA agreed upon are protecting our health. The levels are also not updated very often — it’s like set and forget.

“That’s why you’ll see more health protective levels set by the state of California, for instance, than our federal government, because they’re doing their research and looking at the data and setting these levels at a much lower limits than our regulatory agencies,” Rogers added.

How much to eat?

Not all the news was bad, according to the report, which analyzed seven years of testing data from the US Department of Agriculture on 59 common fruits and vegetables.

Only 20% of the produce tested by the USDA contained “significant risks” from specific pesticides that Consumer Reports viewed as the most concerning, Rogers said.

“This is a long-term chronic exposure issue, and we want consumers to be aware of how they can reduce their risk,” Rogers said. “That’s why we provide a chart that lists how much of each vegetable or fruit that it is safe to eat each day.”

The chart lists produce by pesticide concern, with the lowest levels listed as “Okay to eat more than 10 servings a day.” A third of a cup of applesauce, for example, is green-lit to be eaten 10 or more times a day in the report.

Highly contaminated foods are listed as “Okay to eat up to ? serving a day.” Potatoes and blueberries, for instance, are listed as highly contaminated.

However, the Consumer Reports investigation did not factor in other concerns, such as contamination with heavy metals or combinations of pesticides that may not be as highly toxic, said Jane Houlihan, research director for Healthy Babies, Bright Futures. An alliance of nonprofits, scientists and donors, the organization has a stated mission of reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.

Strawberries often top lists of foods contaminated with insecticides. - Hleb Usovich/iStockphoto/Getty Images
Strawberries often top lists of foods contaminated with insecticides. - Hleb Usovich/iStockphoto/Getty Images

“We should take the ‘safe to eat’ advice with a big grain of salt,” Houlihan said. “Risks from mixtures found in produce can add up.”

For example, any child eating the same, green-lit choice every day or every meal could be repeatedly ingesting the same pesticides or other common food contaminants, she said.

“Pesticides thought safe now may be shown in future studies to be harmful,” Houlihan said. “And the recent tragedy of children poisoned by lead contamination in applesauce shows that even the foods we consider among the healthiest can harbor hidden risks.”

Three brands of applesauce marketed to children were pulled off the market in November after being found to contain elevated levels of lead and chromium. There is no safe level of lead, according to the EPA.

By eating the “rainbow” of colorful foods, a family can still obtain the benefits of the micronutrients each may contain, while serving a huge variety of different fruits and vegetables can reduce levels of any one contaminant, experts suggest.

Being exposed to a variety of foods without pesticides is especially important during pregnancy and throughout childhood, experts say. Developing children need the combined nutrients but are also harder hit by pesticides.

“Pesticide exposure during pregnancy may lead to an increased risk of birth defects, low birth weight, and fetal death,” the American Academy of Pediatrics noted. “Exposure in childhood has been linked to attention and learning problems, as well as cancer.”

Ways to reduce pesticides in your food

Cleaning fruits and vegetables before eating does reduce pesticide levels, but there is “no method of washing produce that is 100% effective for removing all pesticide residues,” according to the National Pesticide Information Center.

Starting with clean hands, wash and scrub produce under running water instead of soaking to remove the most pesticide, the center recommends on its website.

Don’t use soap, detergent or a commercial produce wash, however, as they have not been proven to be any more effective, according to the FDA. Dry the produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to reduce bacteria further that may be present.

Switch to organic versions if possible when trying to avoid some of more contaminated produce from the report. While organic foods are not more nutritious, the majority have little to no pesticide residue, the EWG’s Temkin said.

“If a person switches to an organic diet, the levels of pesticides in their urine rapidly decrease,” she told CNN in an earlier interview. “We see it time and time again.”

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