- Almost all the conventionally grown strawberries in our test contained pesticide residues.
- While these chemicals are generally thought to be safe at the very low levels found, some experts are concerned that over the long term they're increasing our risk of cancer and other health problems.
We love our strawberries. They look beautiful and good ones taste delicious. But are there hidden dangers? CHOICE's latest test results suggest we should be concerned about poor pesticide practices in Australia.
Strawberries are unfortunately more likely to be contaminated with pesticides than other fresh fruit, as growers use pesticides to protect their strawberries from insect pests and fungal diseases. Without pesticides, strawberries would be more expensive because yields would be lower and there would be greater losses from them going bad before they get to the shops. (This is one reason why organic fruit costs more.) But pesticides can be applied too enthusiastically.
The last time independent test results were published in Australia (in 2003), strawberries stood out as the fruit with the highest levels of pesticide residues, though still within acceptable limits. They've been flagged in the US as of 'high concern' for pesticide contamination. When last tested in the UK, 67% of strawberries contained pesticide residues. In France a recent survey found pesticide residues above the legal limit in 20% of strawberries.
For the CHOICE test, we bought strawberries from Coles and Woolworths, as well as from several independent fruit shops, organic food specialists and organic food markets in Sydney.
Our experts assessed each punnet for the quality of the berries — taking into account ripeness and rot. Finally, a lab tested the strawberries from each grower (31 growers in total) for pesticide residues.
Please note: this information was current as of January 2008 but is still a useful guide today.
Why the concern?
If you're a farmer or you’ve used pesticides in your garden you’ll know from the labels that they’re dangerous chemicals that need to be used carefully.
Our national food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), has set maximum residue limits (MRLs) for pesticides permitted in specific foods. MRLs are so small as to be measured in parts per million and they include a substantial safety margin.
Despite this, some experts argue that there’s still an element of risk even at these low levels, and especially when we’re exposed to a daily 'cocktail' of several different pesticides. Evidence is growing that pesticides could be increasing our risk of some cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and impaired cognitive development in children.
And washing doesn’t necessarily remove the pesticides from strawberries. Some pesticides are systemic (which means they penetrate right through the fruit). Others are formulated to resist being washed off by rain. (For more on this see Pesticides in fruit and veg.)