All foods sold in Australia must comply with the Food Standards Code, which defines maximum residue limits (MRL) for pesticides permitted in specific foods.
The MRL is determined from a number of factors including:
- How much of the food is eaten in the average diet.
- How toxic the pesticide is.
- How easily the food absorbs the pesticide.
In theory, at least, foods can’t be sold if they contain pesticides that haven’t been specifically approved for that food or if the level of pesticide exceeds the MRL. But can we be sure that our food complies with the regulations?
Unfortunately how well your food’s being tested depends on where you live.
Pesticide testing varies state by state
Testing for pesticide residues is mostly left to the states. Regular testing is beyond the resources of the smaller states and territories and most of the testing that’s done by the larger states is on local produce only. Imported fruit and vegies mostly escape the net altogether (see Lax approach to imports).
- The ACT and Tasmania do no testing at all.
- The NSW Department of Primary Industry has a new testing program, with funding for five years, but it only looks at local produce. There’s no regular testing of produce at the point of entry or from retail outlets, so imported produce isn’t tested.
- The NT Department of Primary Industry tests locally grown produce.
- The Queensland Department of Primary Industry regularly tests samples from suppliers (and occasionally farmers’ markets), but does no testing of produce from retail outlets.
- SA tested locally produced fruit and vegetables in 2003 but isn’t currently doing any testing at all.
- Victoria regularly tests locally produced fruit and vegetables but doesn’t take samples from retail outlets.
- The WA Department of Health has an ongoing testing program and does surveys of fruit and vegetables every two to five years. The current survey is sampling from retail outlets, including the big supermarket chains.
In the UK about 4000 food samples each year are tested, with an annual surveillance program covering dietary staples (bread, milk and potatoes) and a rolling program that tests different fruit and vegetables, cereal products and other foods every few years. (Testing is partly funded by a levy on the sales of pesticides.)
In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration regularly tests representative foods from four geographic regions of the country.
Our national regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), has checked foods for pesticide residues in the past as part of the Australian Total Dietary Survey.
Because residues have consistently been found to be well below maximum limits, FSANZ now focuses on what it believes to be higher-risk areas, such as preservatives, but will continue to check pesticide residues from time to time.
The Commonwealth Department of Primary Industry regularly tests for pesticides as part of the National Residue Survey, but the program is aimed at foods for export and the only fruit and vegetables tested are locally produced apples, pears, blueberries and onions that are for both local and export consumption.
The fresh fruit and vegetable industry has its own internal testing program — called FreshTest — set up by the Australian Chamber of Fruit and Vegetable Industries.
The FreshTest program operates on a nationwide basis. Samples are collected at regular intervals from the wholesalers at central markets (such as the Flemington Markets in Sydney) and tested for a range of pesticide residues (and/or for microbial and heavy metal contamination). During 2005 the program tested 6457 samples. When problems appear there is a follow-up procedure and corrective action to ensure that it’s rectified. The Australian Chamber of Fruit and Vegetable Industries told us that over 70% of the samples tested showed no detectable residues and where residues were detected 81% were below half the MRL. Their results, though, are not generally available to consumers.
While this is an excellent scheme from the industry’s perspective, CHOICE believes that it’s no substitute for an independent testing program that’s in the public domain and fully accountable to consumers. In the UK, for example, the testing program is under the auspices of the Pesticide Residues Committee set up by the national government. This committee includes independent experts among its members and publishes Quarterly and Annual Reports which anyone can download free of charge from the Internet.
CHOICE is concerned that there’s so little independent testing for pesticide residues. Particularly for imported products it’s surely naive to believe that producers and importers will always voluntarily comply with Australia’s Food Standards Code. The rules need to be enforced.
We’d like to see regular, systematic testing on a national basis. This would avoid wasteful duplication of effort by the states and could be funded by a levy on the sale of pesticides (as in the UK).
Supermarket fruit and veg
WOOLWORTHS told us the majority of its fresh produce is Australian-grown and complies with FSANZ regulations. Imported items are further tested for pesticides by Woolworths Quality Assurance.
COLES didn’t respond to our enquiries.