USDA testing finds 30-plus unapproved pesticides on the herb cilantro
But levels may not pose health risk, experts say
At least 34 unapproved pesticides showed up on cilantro samples analyzed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to data released last week. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
At least 34 unapproved pesticides showed up on cilantro samples analyzed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the agency's routine testing of a rotating selection of produce. Cilantro was the first fresh herb to be tested in the 20-year-old program.
"We are not really sure why the cilantro came up with these residues," said Chris Pappas, a chemist who oversees the Virginia-based USDA pesticide testing. Researchers suspect growers may have confused guidelines for cilantro and flat-leaf parsley, for which more pesticides are approved.
In all, 94 percent of the 184 cilantro samples tested in 2009 came up positive for at least one pesticide, according to an annual Pesticide Data Program report posted online last week.
Chris Campbell, a pesticide analyst for the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, said data show that 44 percent of cilantro samples had residues of at least one pesticide not approved for use on that crop — "higher than I have ever seen" in nearly a decade of analyzing the USDA's pesticide reports.
By comparison, only about 5 percent of spinach samples and 2 percent of apples had at least one pesticide that violated federal rules, according to Campbell's calculations.
The news comes as a one-two punch to cilantro growers and distributors, who in March were hit with a rare "guidance letter" from the Food and Drug Administration citing 28 positive salmonella findings in cilantro since 2004 and warning the industry to "take action to enhance" cilantro safety. This is only the fourth such letter the agency has issued since 2005, according to FDA officials.
Samir Assar, director of produce safety at the FDA, advised consumers with compromised immune systems to consider the salmonella findings when choosing their food. He noted that cooking and thorough washing can reduce, but not necessarily eliminate, the risk from disease-causing bacteria.
Washing did not remove the unapproved pesticides found on cilantro samples tested by USDA.
The cilantro results have captured the attention of both regulators and industry leaders, who said they would take action in response.
"I can assure you that some of these will be followed up," said Ronald Roy, a food safety specialist at the FDA. "When we have a clustering of non-permitted residues around a certain (crop) or with a certain grower, then we investigate to find the cause and correct the specific problem so that it doesn't continue."
"It's something we need to look into," said Kathy Means, vice president of the Produce Marketing Association, a major industry group. "We need to determine: Why this year, why this crop? What's going on? ... There aren't that many cilantro suppliers. And so if you have a problem with one supplier, percentagewise (contamination) may be higher."
Means said that in the wake of the FDA's salmonella letter, the industry had been working on "safety protocols for cilantro" and strategies "to be more careful with cilantro in the future."
Of the samples tested, about 81 percent were grown in the U.S. and 17 percent were imported, with the rest of unknown origin.
Regulatory officials caution that unapproved pesticides on cilantro may not always represent a health threat. Many pesticides not approved for cilantro are OK for use on other plants at certain levels, and regulatory officials recommended taking those levels into consideration when assessing the health threat posed by pesticide residues.
Most levels of the unapproved pesticides found on cilantro did not exceed average limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for other crops, the Tribune found. But the fungicide quintozene was found at levels as high as 0.3 parts per million, above the limit of 0.1 ppm set for foods such as tomato paste, and the insecticide diazanon was found at levels as high as 1 ppm, when the limits for other foods on this year's USDA list range from 0.1 to 0.75 ppm.
One insecticide found on 37 percent of the cilantro samples, the organophosphate chlorpyrifros, is approved for cilantro but, in at least one case, was three times higher than the EPA's established limit for the herb.
The USDA's pesticide program usually tests fewer than 20 fresh fruits and vegetables a year from a rotating lineup of produce items. Tested this year were apples, asparagus, cilantro, cucumbers, grapes, green onions, organic lettuce, oranges, pears, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, corn and sweet potatoes — with the vast majority of tests showing no violations of federal rules.
In terms of unapproved pesticide residues, cilantro was the outlier of the group, with at least 34 of 43 pesticide residues not allowed for use on the herb. The next greatest number of non-permissible pesticides were found on cucumbers, with 17.