Pesticide Produce Testing Goes High Tech

We follow the food to see how much produce has illegal levels of pesticide

By Stephanie Chuang, Liza Meak, and Alex Bozovic
|  Wednesday, Mar 13, 2013  |  Updated 2:42 PM PDT
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California has one of the toughest programs in place to test for illegal levels of pesticides in produce. NBC Bay Area went with inspectors on a recent visit to the Oakland produce market. Stephanie Chuang reports.

California has one of the toughest programs in place to test for illegal levels of pesticides in produce. NBC Bay Area went with inspectors on a recent visit to the Oakland produce market. Stephanie Chuang reports.

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California has one of the toughest programs in place to test for illegal levels of pesticides in produce. All year long, inspectors with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation make surprise visits across the state, taking random samples of produce.

NBC Bay Area went with inspectors on a recent visit to an Oakland produce market.

"We try and hit each type of spectrum and trace it back as far as we can," inspector Paul Ryan said. On any given visit, inspectors will collect up to eighteen different samples of fruits and vegetables, and drive it to a Sacramento lab.

"We have a screen of over 300 compounds that we test for and report back to CDPR," said Stacy Aylesworth, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Center for Analytical Chemistry in Sacramento.

In less than an hour, the high-tech machines can determine whether there's an illegal level of pesticide.

"We've switched to two different analysis and both are using a quad mass spec which makes the identity of pesticides that we're finding much more clear and concise, so we're much more confident in the identity of the pesticides that we're finding," Aylesworth said. In the 18 samples taken from the Oakland inspection, all passed.

That falls in line with recent data, which shows the majority of produce tested complies with EPA pesticide guidelines. In 2011, which is the most recent data available, 3.4 percent of samples had illegal pesticide residues. "That's 97 percent that have come back with tolerances within spec, or nothing on the commodity so I feel pretty comfortable with what I'm consuming," said Fidel Perez, an environmental food scientist with CDPR.

While most food is safe, some fruits and vegetables sampled in 2011 had higher levels of pesticide than ours. Snow peas from Guatemala had the highest percentage of illegal residues at 10.3 percent. Overall, foreign produce had more illegal residues than produce grown here in the United States. "We have a really good track record of having produce below tolerance," Perez said.

Back in Oakland, West Coast Produce Owner Van Lam tries to work with local growers. The majority of his food comes from the U.S. and Mexico. In the last 18 years he's been in business, he's only had pesticide problems a couple of times. "Just once or twice, so it's very, very, rare," Lam said.

Rare, but it does happen, which is why the state remains vigilant in year-round testing to make sure the produce you eat is safe to eat.

Click here to see the list of fruits and vegetables that had the highest percentage of illegal residues.

Click here for information on how to reduce your exposure to pesticides in food.

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