The pesticide testing Australia relies on to pick up chemicals in fresh fruit and vegetables sold domestically routinely picked up far fewer breaches than a government study in 2013.
Unpublished results of a 2013 pilot study for a national produce monitoring system (NPMS) by the federal agriculture department have been revealed under freedom of information laws.
The study was shelved by the former Coalition government despite some disturbing findings.
Testing of strawberries revealed samples with up to 90 times the maximum residue limit (MRL) set for dimethoate, while one apricot and nine peach samples contained levels of the now-withdrawn pesticide fenthion that were “unacceptable from an acute or short term dietary risk perspective”.
The study also looked at the adequacy of the self-regulatory system run by the fruit and vegetable wholesalers, known as FreshTest.
The federal government runs a national residue survey that checks pesticides in exported meat and some fruits, but surveillance of food sold in Australia is left to the industry.
Under FreshTest growers are tested once a year as part of their food certification. They know when they will be tested and provide the sample to FreshTest.
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In contrast, the department’s 2013 pilot on strawberries, peaches and apricots involved randomly buying growers’ produce at the wholesale markets in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, without notice.
The department found many more violations of the MRL than FreshTest over the same period.
The department also detected agricultural chemicals that were not found at all by FreshTest.
In the peach and apricot survey, FreshTest found one sample over the MRL for dimethoate out of eight detections of that chemical. The departmental survey found four samples over the MRL out of five detections.
In the case of fenthion, which has now been withdrawn from use in Australia, FreshTest detected 32 instances and no violations. The department found 66 detections and 12 violations.
The FreshTest survey did not detect any samples with thiabendazole. The department survey found three, all over the limit.
The documents note that the discrepancies are not surprising, given the different sampling methods. FreshTest gives growers notice of when they will be tested, allowing them to potentially reduce their pesticide use and adhere to withholding periods.
In relation to apricots the department wrote: “There were clearly big differences, the most striking being dithiocarbamates being detected at a high rate in the NPMS survey, but not at all in the Farm-Fresh survey. This difference is highly significant. The other differences are much weaker.”
Gail Woods, the general manager of Fresh Markets Australia, which runs FreshTest, said the information in the NPMS related to processes that were in place over a decade ago.
“FreshTest® is an independent fee based, commercial service offered by Fresh Markets Australia (FMA) to provide chemical residue and microbial testing for industry,” she said.
“FreshTest® only uses NATA (National Authorities Testing Australia) accredited laboratories of which there are a number across Australia offering residue testing.
“The integrity of the test is of utmost importance to FMA, and it is underpinned by a strict regime of collection, sample identification, labelling and reporting.”
She did not elaborate on the methodology. The results of FreshTest testing are not publicly available.
“As industry requirements, products being used by growers and the regulatory environment have evolved over the past 22 years, so has FreshTest®. For instance, we are now able to test for over 460 [agricultural] chemicals in one test compared with under 100 in 2001,” Woods said.
“The completion of residue testing of produce is a verification of the ongoing management of chemicals and treatment programs by a business.”
State and territory governments have responsibility for monitoring pesticide use and misuse.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand, which is responsible for setting standards, said the most recent Australian total diet survey, released in 2019, found concentrations of agvet chemicals were generally low, with a large proportion of food samples containing no detectable residues. It was based on samples collected in 2013 and 2014.
The spokesperson said: “The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and FSANZ take action to review chemical permissions and MRLs where relevant data supports the need to do so.
“For example, the approved uses for fenthion have been removed and no MRLs for residues in food remain in the Code,” they said.
The agriculture department said the final report of an independent review of the pesticides regulatory system had recommended the establishment of a national domestic produce monitoring program.
The department has also recently asked a consultant to identify the sources of data available on pesticide use, residues in food and environmental exposures.
“The government is currently considering the final report and its recommendations,” a spokesperson said.