Pesticides in imported vegetables

Imported vegetables appear no more likely to be contaminated with pesticides than Australian produce.
 
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01 .What are we really importing?

vegies

If you’ve recently bought frozen or canned vegetables, chances are they were imported; in the past four years, imports of vegetables have increased by more than 80%.

On a recent trip to the supermarket, CHOICE found frozen broccoli and cauliflower from China, canned asparagus from Peru and canned corn kernels from Thailand. These imported products are often cheaper than locally produced equivalents and dominate the supermarkets’ generic brands. But questions have been raised about the safety of imported fruit and vegetables, with suggestions they’re more likely to be contaminated with toxic pesticides than produce grown in Australia.

We tested 30 samples of frozen or canned produce (fruit and vegetables) for a broad spectrum of 164 different pesticides. Five were produced in Australia or New Zealand; most of the rest were imported from China or South-East Asia. Encouragingly, we found pesticide residues in only three – and even then at levels well below the maximum residue limit ((MRL).

  • Canned mushrooms from China contained the fungicide prochloraz at 4% of the MRL. 
  • Frozen green beans from China contained dicofol – an insecticide similar to DDT now banned in some countries – at 2% of the MRL.
  • Frozen broccoli produced in Australia contained the insecticide permethrin at 2% of the MRL.

So it appears imported vegetables are no more likely to be contaminated with pesticides than Australian produce. But there’s still the issue of whether we should be buying imported fruit and vegetables, when equivalent Australian produce is available at the same time, albeit at higher prices.

This is a complex issue and it’s easy to be swayed by simplistic arguments. On the face of it, importing food from the other side of the world has significant environmental costs in terms of additional use of fossil fuels and increased greenhouse gas emissions – see our story on food miles, CHOICE December 2008/January 2009. But farming and food processing have their own environmental impacts that can far outweigh that of transportation, and food produced in Australia can also travel across huge distances. You may also feel compelled to support Australian farmers. But farmers in China, Peru and Thailand also work hard and struggle to make a living. And what would happen to Australian exports if food miles were scrutinised more closely overseas?

If you’ve recently bought frozen or canned vegetables, chances are they were imported; in the past four years, imports of vegetables have increased by more than 80%. On a recent trip to the supermarket, CHOICE found frozen broccoli and caulifl ower from China, canned asparagus from Peru and canned corn kernels from Thailand.

These imported products are often cheaper than locally produced equivalents and dominate the supermarkets’ generic brands. But questions have been raised about the safety of imported fruit and vegetables.

We tested 30 samples of frozen or canned produce (fruit and vegetables) for a broad spectrum of 164 different pesticides. Five were produced in Australia or New Zealand; most of the rest were imported from China or South-East Asia. Encouragingly, we found pesticide residues in only three – and even then at levels well below the maximum residue limit (MRL) – see Pesticide Regulation.

  • Canned mushrooms from China contained the fungicide prochloraz at 4% of the MRL.
  • Frozen green beans from China contained dicofol – an insecticide similar to DDT now banned in some countries – at 2% of the MRL. 
  • Frozen broccoli produced in Australia contained the insecticide permethrin at 2% of the MRL.

So it appears imported vegetables are no more likely to be contaminated with pesticides than Australian produce. But there’s still the issue of whether we should be buying imported fruit and vegetables, when equivalent Australian produce is available at the same time, albeit at higher prices.

This is a complex issue and it’s easy to be swayed by simplistic arguments. On the face of it, importing food from the other side of the world has significant environmental costs in terms of additional use of fossil fuels and increased greenhouse gas emissions – see our story on food miles. But farming and food processing have their own environmental impacts that can far outweigh that of transportation, and food produced in Australia can also travel across huge distances. You may also feel compelled to support Australian farmers. But farmers in China, Peru and Thailand also work hard and struggle to make a living. And what would happen to Australian exports if food miles were scrutinised more closely overseas?

 
 

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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 may be. 
  • How easily the food absorbs the pesticide.

In theory, foods cannot be sold if they contain pesticides that haven’t been specifically approved for that food or if the level of pesticide exceeds the MRL.

Despite the generous safety margin, CHOICE has concerns about the regulation of pesticides. Australia is lagging far behind the precautionary principle other countries use to safeguard public health. Here, use of a pesticide is permitted unless there is conclusive scientific evidence that its approved use is hazardous to human health and it persists as an environmental pollutant. The highly toxic pesticide endosulfan, for example, continues to be used on a wide range of citrus fruit, vegetables and cereals in Australia, despite having been banned in more than 60 countries, including New Zealand, the European Union and several Asian and West African nations. And while our regulators maintain it’s safe, the chemical company Bayer is phasing out endosulfan as an insecticidal ingredient by the end of 2010.

CHOICE is working to improve the regulation of chemicals in Australia. Go to Bad Chemistry Campaign for more information about our consumer advocacy project.

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