Pesticide issue surfaces over Mexican goods
'Are you gonna eat that?'
By Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif - Grapes and wine from Chile. Tomatoes, carrots, and broccoli from Mexico. Apple juice from Hungary. Orange juice from Brazil.
The global economy is bringing more foreign-grown produce to American tables and blurring the borders for nations and multinational corporations. But all produce is not equal, especially when it comes to pesticide content.
Illegal pesticide residue shows up 31/2 times as often on produce from Mexico as on produce grown in California, according to the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation.
"It appears to us the disparity is getting worse rather rapidly," particularly in the last four or five years, said Charles Benbrook, a national pesticide expert and Consumers Union consultant.
That realization has caused renewed debate about pesticide residue. In Washington, support has grown for "country of origin" labeling requirements in a farm bill pending in Congress.
Developing countries generally have few controls on pesticide use, which results in more residue on produce exported to the United States, said Colorado State University sociology professor Douglas Murray, an expert on pesticide hazard reduction.
Mexican tomatoes, for instance, had a "toxicity index" more than four times higher than California tomatoes, according to a February Consumers Union report based on 1998 data, the most recent available.
The California Farm Bureau and the Western Growers Association said they are more likely to point out the overall safety of produce than they are to play up a disparity between producers, admittedly out of reluctance to discourage consumers.
"In 97 percent of Mexican produce, there was no pesticide detected whatsoever, and in 99 percent of California produce, there was no pesticide detected whatsoever," said Hank Giclas, Western Growers' vice president for science and technical affairs.
Critics take a different view.
"If you magnify that out to the marketplace, that's a lot of produce," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group. "This is indicative of the pesticide that's out there."
Although foreign produce tests higher for pesticide residue, "we're still talking about very low levels" that have resulted in no reported illnesses, said Glenn Brank, spokesman for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.
Bernardo Mendez, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco, said little disparity exists in standards between the two countries.
"I don't think there is much of a difference in standards," said Mr. Mendez. "Maybe in some past years there has been some problem in enforcement, but that is getting better."
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