FDA tests find U.S. food supply awash in pesticide residues

WASHINGTON – More than 50 percent of thousands of domestic and imported foods tested by the Food and Drug Administration had detectable levels of at least one pesticide, according to results the agency released this week.

Among 185 different pesticides found on the food samples, some of the most frequently detected include the brain-damaging chlorpyrifos, and several neonicotinoids, or neonics, a family of insecticides known to be toxic to bees and other pollinators. Recent studies have shown that neonics may also be harmful to humans, especially children.

Very high levels of the herbicide glyphosate, some of which violate legal limits, were detected in chickpeas, lentils, beans, and oats and other grains. Previous testing by the Environmental Working Group has uncovered extensive presence of glyphosate in these food items, as well as one violation of the legal limit for the chemical on food.

“The tests once again confirm that Americans, including vulnerable populations like children and pregnant people can be exposed to a mix of toxic pesticides through the foods they eat,” said Alexis Temkin, Ph.D., a senior scientist and toxicologist at EWG.

Between October 2019 and September 2020, the FDA collected and tested 2,078 food samples, 316 produced in the U.S. and 1,762 imported from several countries.

Among domestic foods samples, nearly 60 percent had at least one or more pesticide residues. Tests of imported food items found more than 50 percent of those contained at least one or more pesticides. More than 3 percent of domestic food samples and 11.6 percent of imported samples had pesticide residues above the legal limits established by the Environmental Protection Agency. The vast majority of the detected chemical residues were of pesticides on food for which the EPA has yet to establish a legal limit.

Most of the residue levels detected by the FDA in its tests were below the legal limit set by EPA, but there were some that exceeded the safety limits – in violation of a federal statute meant to reduce dietary exposure to pesticides from food.

More than 290 food samples, imported and domestic, had detectable levels of neonics. Of the 16 domestic apple samples tested, 7 had residues of acetamiprid. Nearly half of the 42 imported sweet peppers had residues of clothianidin and several had residues for multiple neonics. Imidacloprid, the most frequently detected neonic, was found on Basmati rice, pears, blueberries, strawberries, spinach, raisins, and string beans, among others.

The neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos, which the EPA recently banned from agricultural use over health concerns for children and farmworkers, was detected on more than 50 samples of imported foods, including hot and sweet peppers, Basmati rice, pears, strawberries, raisins, olives, and celery, among others.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts its own annual pesticide residues tests of domestic and imported fruits and vegetables, and the sample size of each of the produce items is much larger than those analyzed by FDA. EWG uses the USDA’s residue tests as the basis for the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, including the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen to help consumers concerned about dietary exposure to pesticides navigate the produce section of their grocery stores.


The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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