Strawberries test reveals health concerns

We tell you how to choose the sweetest and tastiest — but our test found pesticide residues in most conventionally grown strawberries.
 
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  • Updated:29 Jan 2008
 

01 .Introduction

A pile of strawberries

In brief

  • 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.)

 
 

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How we tested

Lab assistant testing strawberriesWe bought strawberries from Coles and Woolworths supermarkets and independent Sydney suburban fruit shops (three of each). We also bought some from organic food specialists and from small organic food markets (again located in different Sydney suburbs). For comparison, and to increase the number of individual growers sampled, we also bought strawberries from the Sydney Markets at Flemington.

When an outlet had strawberries produced by more than one grower we bought five punnets of each. We always chose the best-looking strawberries on offer, like any other customer would.

An expert examined each sample of strawberries and estimated the percentages of:

  • Premium berries (with no obvious blemishes).
  • Berries with no obvious rot.
  • Completely ripe berries (100% red, with no white areas).

We then tested the strawberries from each grower for pesticide residues. Altogether we tested strawberries from 31 growers in all states (except Tasmania and South Australia) — 27 of them conventional growers and four certified organic growers, who shouldn’t be using pesticides.

What we found

The test method was able to detect any of 150 different pesticides. We found the following in one or more samples:

  • Boscalid
  • Captan
  • Carbaryl
  • Chlorpyrifos
  • Dimethoate
  • Endosulfan-beta
  • Iprodione
  • Pirimicarb
  • Pyrimethanil

Some of the results were particularly disturbing.

  • One sample contained a pesticide residue at a level that exceeded the maximum residue limit (MRL); another contained a pesticide that the regulations don’t allow Australian growers to use on strawberries.
  • One sample of strawberries grown in Victoria contained a pesticide that, according to the pesticide manufacturer’s label, is permitted for use on strawberries only in Queensland and Western Australia. However, Victorian farmers are in fact allowed to spray crops “off-label” with any pesticide that’s not a Schedule 7 poison — provided that when the food’s sold the pesticide level is below the MRL (as it was in the sample we tested).
  • Another two were under the Australian limit for captan, but contained more of this fungicide than is permitted under more stringent EU regulations.
  • Seventeen of the conventionally grown strawberries had residues of more than one pesticide.
  • Four of these came with a cocktail of no less than four different chemicals, though all below the MRL.
  • One of the four organic samples contained the fungicide pyrimethanil. However, the level was less than 1% of the MRL, so it may have been from residual environmental contamination, or sprays blown across from an adjoining property.

MRLs are very conservative. It’s highly unlikely that a few strawberries with pesticides above the MRL will do you any harm, but we know very little about the pesticide levels in other fruit and vegetables, and long-term overexposure could be of concern.

CHOICE verdict

More independent testing is needed. Right now the only independent testing for pesticide residues in food is done by some state governments, and even then the number and types of products tested are limited and some states do no testing at all.

The fresh fruit and vegetable industry has its own internal national testing program — called FreshTest — but the results aren’t made public.

Our results highlight the need for truly independent, comprehensive and regular testing on a national basis, as is done in the UK. CHOICE welcomes the recent decision by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) that it will be including pesticide residues in its next Australian Total Diet Survey in 2008. This is a step in the right direction, but no substitute for regular and comprehensive testing.

Children are at greater risk of pesticides than adults, because of their smaller body size. If you want to minimise your family’s exposure to pesticides, organic is the way to go. Independent testing has consistently found much lower levels of pesticide residues in organic than in conventionally grown produce.

03.Where to buy and how to pick the best

 

If you still fancy strawberries after all that talk of pesticides, where will you find the sweetest and tastiest ones? All too often strawberries look wonderful in the shop but turn out to be bullet-hard and tasteless when you get them home, with a percentage of them usually inedible because of rot or other blemishes.

This is why we also put our strawberries to the test for edibility, checking them for blemishes, rot and ripeness (see How we tested).

  • On average, the strawberries from independent fruit shops had the fewest blemishes, with 70% blemish-free vs 55% from the big supermarkets.
  • The fruit from organic specialists had the least rot: only 0.7% had significant rot compared with 3% of the supermarket fruit.
  • The ripest strawberries came from small suburban organic food market, with on average 80% completely ripe. This compared with only 56% from independent fruit shops and 78% for the two big supermarkets.

What to consider

There are several factors to consider when buying strawberries:Ripe strawberries

Strawberries taste best when they’re fully ripe

Unlike some fruit, such as bananas, strawberries don’t develop their full flavour unless they’re allowed to fully ripen on the vine. But often they’re transported over long distances and wouldn’t survive two or three days jolting in a truck unless they were picked under-ripe.

So under-ripe, flavourless fruit is the price we pay for having strawberries from interstate when there are no local ones available.

Shopping in Sydney, we found strawberries from NSW, Queensland, Victoria and WA. On average the fruit from WA stood out as being the least ripe. The strawberries from NSW growers were the ripest.

If you want flavour and sweetness, look for fully ripe fruit. There’s a trade-off, though, as ripe fruit is more likely to have blemishes. But you can cut any blemishes off — a small price to pay for tasty strawberries.

Strawberries taste best when they’re fresh

Strawberries start to lose flavour as soon as they’re picked, so the longer it takes to get them from the farm to your plate, the poorer the flavour. And the flavour deteriorates faster than the strawberries themselves. They can still look perfectly OK a week after harvesting, but they don’t have much flavour left.

A punnet of strawberries usually has a sticker showing the grower’s name and the district where the strawberries were grown. You can improve your chances of getting tasty strawberries by avoiding fruit that’s travelled a long distance. Don’t necessarily expect strawberries at your local produce market to have been locally grown. You might strike it lucky, but there’s no guarantee.

At the three markets where we bought strawberries, only one stallholder had local fruit that he’d grown himself. At another Sydney market we only found strawberries grown in WA.

Some varieties taste better than others

It may not be obvious when you buy them, but strawberries come in different varieties (just as apples can be Golden Delicious, Fuji, Pink Lady, Granny Smith, and so on) and some varieties have a better flavour than others.

Breeding programs have recently been producing some really tasty new varieties of strawberry, but as far as the consumer’s concerned the effort’s been wasted. None of the strawberries we bought had the variety stated on the label or displayed in the store. When we asked sales staff at each of the 15 outlets where we bought strawberries, only one could tell us the variety (the market stallholder who’d grown them himself).

Occasionally you might see the variety on the small label stuck to the punnet, and there’s a space for marking the variety printed on the cardboard trays in which the punnets of strawberries are supplied to shops. But on most of the trays we saw at the Sydney Markets the grower hadn’t bothered to mark the appropriate square.

Varieties to look for
  • Rubygem from Queensland
  • Camarosa (a variety originally from California)
  • Millewa from Victoria

Picking the best

Here’s how to boost your chances of getting strawberries that taste as good as they look.

  • Strawberries need a chill temperature at night to develop flavour and sweetness. This means they’re at their best in spring and early summer.
  • Choose the ripest fruit. Really ripe strawberries are sweetest and more likely to have a good flavour. Fortunately the punnets are usually transparent — look for strawberries that are red all over, with no white bits. They should have a bright red colour and the leafy stalk (the calyx) should look fresh and green; if they’re a dull, dark red with shrivelled stalks they’re over-ripe and best avoided.
  • Look for fruit that’s been grown locally (check the label on the punnet). Fruit that’s travelled a long distance will have lost much of its flavour. If there’s an organic or farmers’ market in your area, try buying your fruit there.
  • Flip the top off the 'clam shell' packaging and sniff — a good strawberry aroma is an indication that they’ll be tasty when you get them home.
  • Ask about the variety. Rubygem, Camarosa and Millewa are especially flavoursome ones.
  • Store strawberries in the fridge and eat them as soon as possible. And for the best flavour, take them out of the fridge an hour or so before you eat them.