GAO Report Sounds Alarm Again on Poor Pesticide Controls

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 10, 2014.  According to a new Government Accountability (GAO) report, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not test food for several commonly used pesticides with established tolerance levels –including glyphosate, one of the most commonly used pesticides in the U.S. This and other disturbing findings documented in GAO’s report, Food Safety: FDA and USDA Should Strengthen Pesticide Residue Monitoring Programs and Further Disclose Monitoring Limitations, issued last Thursday, sounds an alarm that GAO began sounding in the 1980’s in several reports that identify shocking limitations of FDA’s approach to monitoring for pesticide residue violations in food.

gao sealGAO sharply criticizes FDA for not using statistically valid methods consistent with Office of Management and Budget (OMB) standards to collect information on the incidence and level of pesticide residues. In fact, GAO states that it “was unable to find publicly available estimates of the overall toxicity or risk associated with the use of agricultural pesticides in the United States.” According to GAO, FDA is testing less than one-tenth of one percent of all imported fruits and vegetables and less than 1 percent of domestic fruits and vegetables. The report is also critical of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) testing, finding limitations in its data.

Among its new findings, the report found that not only does FDA not disclose what pesticides it does not test for, but the multiresidue methods that it uses cannot detect all pesticides with established tolerances, including six of the most commonly used pesticides in the U.S.: glyphosate, 2,4-D, MCPA, mancozeb, paraquat, and methyl bromide.

Glyphosate is one of the most popular weedkillers in both the U.S. and the world and also the active ingredient in Roundup —the leading glyphosate product developed by Monsanto. Known as “Roundup Ready,” Genetically engineered (GE) soybeans, corn, cotton, and other crops have been genetically altered and patented by Monsanto to be glyphosate-tolerant. Whether a crop stems from a Roundup Ready seed or not, glyphosate is used in almost all agricultural areas of the U.S., as well as on an international scale, in conventional, non-organic farming operations.

FDA officials cited two reasons that it does not test for glyphosate. First, officials stated that if present in genetically engineered (GE) corn and soybeans, glyphosate levels are likely to be reduced by the processing done to those foods. Second, according to the agency, the total start-up cost to implement selective residue methods for glyphosate at its six testing laboratories would be approximately $5 million.

According to FDA officials, testing for 2,4-D would also require a selective residue method that would cost approximately $5 million to implement throughout its laboratories. FDA officials stated that, while the agency does not test for 2,4-D in its pesticide monitoring program, it does test for them in its Total Diet Study. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established for dozens of food or animal feed commodities. According to agency officials, its Total Diet Study testing has detected 2,4-D at low levels (below 5 parts per billion) in selected food items. However, as has occurred with glyphosate, the use of 2,4-D may increase if USDA deregulates the production of corn and soybeans genetically engineered to tolerate being sprayed with this herbicide.

EPA recently approved the use of Enlist Duo, a blend of glyphosate and 2,4-D, for use on genetically engineered corn and soy crops. The documented adverse effects of 2,4-D, a chlorophenoxy herbicide, are plentiful and include human health risks of soft tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, neurotoxicity, kidney/liver damage, and harm to the reproductive system. EPA’s own research suggests that babies born in counties where high rates of chlorophenoxy herbicides are applied to farm fields are significantly more likely to be born with birth defects of the respiratory and circulatory systems, as well as defects of the musculoskeletal system like clubfoot, fused digits, and extra digits. These birth defects are 60-90% more likely in counties with higher 2,4-D application rates. The results also show a higher likelihood of birth defects in babies conceived in the spring, when herbicide application rates peak.

According to the Washington Post, the GAO review of the pesticide program was requested by Rep. Paul Tonko, (D-N.Y.), who said the results concerned him and urged the agencies to follow the recommendations of the federal auditors. “GAO’s report indicates that the monitoring programs used by FDA and FSIS are falling short of their objectives.  Improvements are needed in pesticide residue monitoring,” Rep. Tonko told the paper, adding that both agencies “will need to devote more resources to pesticide residue monitoring to implement GAO’s recommendations.”

In 1997 testimony before Congress, Federal Regulation of Pesticide Residues In Food, GAO stated, “Our overall judgment is that because of the limited amount of food that FDA is able to test for pesticide residues, it is important that FDA’s monitoring program acts as a strong deterrent against the shipment of food containing pesticide residues that render the food adulterated. Our reviews of FDA’s pesticide monitoring program show that this is not the case.” That testimony came on the heels of two GAO reports warning legislators and policy makers that the regulation and enforcement of pesticides in food is seriously flawed. GAO found that monitoring of both domestically grown and imported food is poor. It found that the government regulatory system “provided limited protection against public exposure to illegal residues in food.” (GAO. Pesticides: Better Sampling and Enforcement Needed on Imported Food. RCED-86-219. 1986). In a separate report, GAO concluded that it is “impossible to monitor routinely for all possible chemical residues and to detect and remove each and every shipment of food and feed that may contain illegal residues.” (GAO. Pesticides: Need to Enhance FDA’s Ability to Protect the Public from Illegal Residues. RCED-87-7. 1986)  Then, eight years later, GAO warned Congress that, “Because scientific data are not always adequate to quantify risks and benefits, the choice of an appropriate regulatory standard entails value judgements and is, ultimately, a policy decision.” (GAO. Pesticides: Options to Achieve A Single Regulatory Standard. GAO/RCED-94-57. May, 1994)

The serious limitations in protecting the public from pesticide exposure –even to levels identified by EPA as allowing an “acceptable” rate of harm based on controversial risk assessment calculations– gave important support to Beyond Pesticides’ efforts to advance organic food production and a national certification system that adopted stronger oversight and rigor than the pesticide regulatory standards that had and continue to fail the public. Integral to the organic oversight system is an independent stakeholder board, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), that is responsible for determining by a super majority (2/3’s vote) the allowance of all synthetic materials, which sunset off (and must be voted back on) the National List of allowed and prohibited substances, based on the most up-to-date science and an assessment of the need for the material (given the availability of nonsynthetic alternatives). (See USDA attempts to weaken these standards, as codified in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA).) The public has demanded a higher level of scrutiny for foods certified organic, in part driven by what GAO has identified as a flawed pesticide regulatory system and high-profile food contamination over the years. The sunset provision of OFPA creates a critical incentive for continuous improvement in production practices and materials used in certified organic operations. However, as public demand for organic grows, companies with chemical-intensive practice orientations join the sector, pressure increases on regulators and policy makers to find short-cuts that fail to apply the history and core understandings of the origins of organic and public expectations, and we see steps being taken by USDA that weaken the value of the organic label. Consumers Union recently announced at the October, 2014 NOSB meeting that it had downgraded the value of the organic label because of changes to the NOSB materials review process that were announced by USDA in the September 16, 2013 Federal Register, as well as other steps taken since then.

Beyond the impacts that residues of pesticides have on people who eat food grown with chemical-intensive practices, the pesticides used in conventional food production can also have devastating impacts where they are used, poison farmworkers, and cause cancer, Parkinson’s, and other chronic diseases in rural communities. Children of farmworkers are also at elevated risk.

For more information on the health effects of pesticide exposure, see Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database. For more information on pesticides and the foods you eat, see Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience. For more information on organic food production, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Agriculture webpage.

Sources: GAO Report, Washington Post,

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.