FDA Not Adequately Testing Food for Pesticides

FDA Not Adequately Testing Foods for Pesticide Residue, GAO Reports. David McNew/Getty Images

Watch what you eat, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not adequately testing either domestic or imported foods for pesticide residue, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

As a key agency in the U.S. food safety system, the FDA administers a food safety program overseeing the safety of all imported and domestic foods beverages and food ingredients except meat and poultry, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).


However, a GAO audit report requested by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-New York) shows that in 2012, the FDA tested less than one-tenth of 1% of all imported foods and only a “very small percentage” of all domestic foods for pesticide residue.

Finding the FDA’s pesticide residue testing and reporting program not “statistically valid,” GAO auditors said the agency was failing to meet its stated objective to “determine the national incidence and level of pesticide residues in the foods it regulates.”

The problem, said the GAO, is based in the FDA’s and USDA’s decision to not test foods for many commonly used pesticides, despite the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established strict food residue limits for them. The GAO chided both the FDA and USDA for failing to mention this limitation in their annual food pesticide level reports distributed to Congress and consumers.

While the GAO did not find fault with the USDA’s current rate of pesticide testing, auditors did note that it has been higher in the past.

During the year 2000, for example, the USDA tested more than 8,000 samples of imported and domestic foods for pesticide residue. By 2009, that number had fallen to fewer than 1,900 samples. The number of samples tested annually increased to about 2,100 on 2010 and 2011.

The FDA’s rate of pesticide testing has fallen from nearly 13,000 samples in 1993 to about 7,000 in 2012, according to the GAO.

One reason cited by the GAO for the falling number of samples tested by both agencies is the reduction in the number and quantity of EPA-regulated pesticides used in domestic food production over the years. However, similar reductions are not evident in imported food production.

The GAO did praise the USDA for working with the EPA to change its testing criteria to “better provide EPA with data it needs to assess the risks of pesticides.”

In its response to the GAO’s recommendation, the FDA said it would consider -- but not commit to -- creating a more “statistically significant” pesticide testing protocol.

The GAO also recommended that both the FDA and USDA should begin disclosing the names of the pesticides it does not test for. The FDA, however refused, claiming that doing so would help food producers “more easily circumvent” the testing. The USDA, on the other hand, agreed to follow the recommendation. Note that the GAO does not have the authority to order federal agencies to follow its recommendation.

Since both the FDA and USDA fail to test for many commonly-used pesticides, the GAO expressed concerns that annual reports showing low levels of residue and infrequent violations may actually understate the levels of pesticides present in the U.S. food supply.