According to the latest annual report from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, about 94 percent of California produce complied with federal and state guidelines for contamination. Meanwhile, 6 percent violated standards by either containing levels of pesticide that were too high, or the wrong type for the piece of produce.
Top offenders were foreign produce from Mexico and China, including prickly pear cactus, papaya, and ginger. U.S. kale and spinach also made the cut.
In all, 47 percent of prickly pear cactus samples showed dangerously high levels of pesticide residue—enough to warrant statewide health notices to consumers. Despite years of warnings and fines, some Mexican farmers are still spraying the cactus with enough illegal pesticide to cause flu-like symptoms when eaten in large quantities, according to the report.
The report also found that 27 percent of lime samples contained illegal pesticides, along with 17 percent of papaya, summer squash, and Chinese ginger, 16 percent of tomatillos, and 10 percent of spinach. Organic crops weren’t entirely innocent either: 2 percent of 234 certified organic samples contained pesticide levels that exceeded state labeling guidelines.
"We’re looking at consumers, but these levels also mean that workers are getting hurt," George Farnsworth, assistant director of the agency's pesticide programs division, said to the Los Angeles Times.
Ginger contained traces of aldicarb sulfoxide, known for polluting waterways. Three Asian produce companies were fined as a result of the violations.
Much of the produce that tested positive in the U.S. was likely contaminated elsewhere—for example, from packing equipment that was improperly cleaned—but agency authorities suspect that Mexican crops were directly sprayed with the illegal pesticides, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Mexican producers have been found in violation of guidelines repeatedly, but many have yet to improve conditions. Again, the Los Angeles Times:
“The repeated violations by Mexican produce have sparked a cross-border visit from officials of the agency, which also levied $38,000 in fines this year against three Los Angeles produce companies that it accused of disregarding warnings and repeatedly selling produce from lots that failed pesticide tests."
According to agency authorities, when tainted produce is found it's tracked by lot number, taken off the market, and destroyed.
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Prickly pear cactus image via Shuttershock