A pilot program to monitor pesticides in Australian fruit and vegetables was halted by the Abbott government despite it revealing residues up to 90 times the permitted maximum levels in strawberries.
The research also found levels of pesticides in some peach and apricot samples were “unacceptable from an acute or short-term dietary risk perspective”, meaning eating affected fruit could pose a health risk.
The results of the aborted pilot project by the Department of Agriculture in 2013 were obtained through a freedom of information request.
The previous Labor government had agreed with the states to set up the program, but after the 2013 election the then Nationals’ leader and agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, canned it and withdrew the $25m funding.
The government cited budgetary pressures and the results of the pilot were not released.
Unlike the US, Canada, New Zealand and Europe, there is no regular monitoring of agricultural chemicals in most food sold domestically in Australia.
Meat and some fruit for export such as apples, pears and macadamias, are tested under the national residues survey, run by the department.
But the only monitoring of pesticide residues in fruit sold domestically is by FreshTest, run by the industry body Fresh Markets Australia, which involves growers providing samples once a year.
The pilot studied hundreds of samples of peaches, apricots and strawberries bought at fruit and vegetable markets around Australia.
The documents revealed one sample of strawberries recorded nearly 90 times the maximum residue limit (MRL) for dimethoate, which at the time was set at 0.02mg/kg. Another strawberry sample contained 37 times the maximum residue limit of the same chemical.
A spokesperson for the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), which approves the use of pesticides and sets MRLs, said residue monitoring was not within its statutory remit.
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In August 2011 the APVMA suspended the use of dimethoate on many food products, including fruiting strawberries, but after the monitoring program results, the department found some growers had continued to use it.
Dimethoate can now be used only on very limited crops, including strawberry runner production, but not on berries.
Health authorities have now revised down the acceptable daily intake of dimethoate from 0.02mg/kg to 0.001mg/kg and set an acute reference dose of 0.02mg/kg. The sample that was 90 times over the limit contained 0.76mg/kg.
Large doses of dimethoate can cause acute poisoning, and smaller doses may also be of concern. The US Environmental Protection Agency has classified dimethoate as a possible human carcinogen and the EU banned it in 2019 amid concerns about its impact on reproductive function.
Of the 100 strawberry samples in the pilot, 14 had residues that exceeded the MRL.
“There were 22 different chemicals detected in the samples, and seven different chemicals detected where concentrations exceeded the APVMA’s MRL,” the documents said. “The majority of chemicals detected (18) were registered for use in strawberries.
“The chemical most frequently detected in non-compliant samples was dimethoate, which was found in seven samples.”
The department then tested 300 samples each of apricots and peaches.
“One apricot and nine peach samples contained residues of fenthion above the MRL that were ‘unacceptable from an acute or short term dietary risk perspective’,” the report said.
Fenthion is an organophosphorus insecticide used for field and post harvest treatments of fruits and vegetables.
By September 2012, the APVMA had published a health advisory for a number of uses of fenthion, including on stone fruit, saying: “The APVMA cannot be satisfied that these uses of fenthion would not be an undue hazard to the safety of people using anything containing its residues, and they must be deleted.”
After the completion of a review of fenthion in October 2014, all horticultural uses were withdrawn except for tropical fruit with inedible peels, which has now ceased.
The chief executive of pesticide industry advocacy group Croplife Australia, Matthew Cossey, said MRLs were an early warning system.
“They have massive safety buffers built into them, typically being set dozens or hundreds of times lower than the allowable daily intake, which in turn are set a minimum of 100 times lower than any level which has been shown to have any effect in long-term exposure trials,” Cossey said.
“While a one-off breach does not pose any immediate safety issue it should be investigated and addressed immediately to ensure the safety of produce in the short, medium and long term.”
The documents reveal that Joyce was lobbied by the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) against the scheme, whereas his department said the program would provide “valuable feedback” on state and territory approaches to control of chemical residues.
The NFF said farmers would end up bearing the cost after the initial five years of government funding.
“While the NFF agrees it is often important to monitor agricultural produce, the value of this program is still not clear from an industry perspective,” it said.
“The NFF has had concerns expressed from members regarding poor program design, lack of integration with existing initiatives (including industry driven assurance schemes) and also from the perspective of yet another cost that is likely to be passed on to industry without prior consultation.”
A spokesman for Joyce restated the reasons publicly provided in 2015, that the Commonwealth had no power to enforce compliance with the domestic use of agricultural chemicals.
“This responsibility lies with the states and territories”, the spokesman said.
At the time, the Department of Agriculture had advised that studies had been made based on limited sampling and that the methodology used was in its pilot stage, the spokesman added.
Joyce killed it off with a handwritten note: “This is being closed.”
The scheme was scrapped in the 2014-15 budget. Instead, $8m was redirected to improving farmers’ access to agricultural chemicals.
A more recent independent review of pesticides regulation has now recommended a national monitoring scheme.
Cossey said Australia had a world-leading, modern and sophisticated regulatory system for pesticides and their use, that ensured the safety of agricultural produce for domestic consumers and export markets.
He said Croplife had never been provided with the results of the pilot, but officials indicated that overall it confirmed very high compliance by farmers with MRLs.
The findings were also provided to grower groups for the specific fruits.
“Afterwards CropLife advocated to the federal government that resources should be prioritised and targeted to ensure improvements to the regulatory system to address MRL breaches, including a nationally harmonised pesticide control of use regime,” Cossey said, adding that the department failed to take up their proposal.
The NFF noted the results were nearly a decade old and that much had changed, including chemicals like fenthion being withdrawn from use.
Surveys by the Victorian agriculture department between 2015 and 2021 found 7.3% of 1,502 samples had unacceptable residue levels.
The acting chief executive of the NFF, Charlie Thomas, said: “It is important to Australian farmers they provide safe, high quality produce and the appropriate use of production chemicals is something they take very seriously.”
“Australia has a world-class regulatory system for the safe and effective use of agvet chemicals, administered by the commonwealth regulator and state and territory bodies,” he said.
“The NFF supports the use of systems that keep chemical residues within reasonable and approved levels to underpin consumer confidence in our world-class produce.”