02.About our test
How we tested
We 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:
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.
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.