Report: Pesticides in food items

Valley News Correspondent
Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Toxics Action Center released a report last week that found pesticides in certain grocery store food items, and while the levels were below safety tolerances set by the EPA, the New England-based advocacy group linked those pesticides to human and environmental health problems.

The report, released on Tuesday, tested store-brand applesauce, pinto beans, apples, spinach and oat cereals — Cheerios knock-offs — and found pesticide residues on many of these products.

Testers shopped for the listed products at big supermarket chains across 15 states, including Massachusetts. They did not shop in Vermont or New Hampshire, though two of the tested chains — Walmart and Albertsons, which owns Shaw’s — have locations in the Upper Valley.

“I hope that people contact their grocery stores and tell them they need to change course,” said Woody Little, the Vermont and New Hampshire community organizer for Toxics Action Center. “We have seen this work before.”

The report was written by Friends of the Earth, an international environmental network, with contributions by Toxics Action Center and other groups.

In a statement, Shaw’s pointed out that the company requires its food suppliers to comply with all legal and regulatory guidelines. “At Shaw’s & Star Market, we understand that consumers want products that they can feel good about,” the statement read. “That’s why we’re committed to quality products and product safety.”

Wal-Mart did not respond to a request for comment.

The report suggested organic farming practices as the ultimate solution, but it also proposed that stores reduce pesticides and support more organic food offerings as intermediary steps.

“They’re not going to go completely organic tomorrow,” acknowledged Little, who works out of Toxics Action Center’s Montpelier office.

And though the pesticide levels found were below legal limits, the report claims that repeated exposures can lead to health issues such as cancer and developmental problems in children.

Little said that in agricultural states, growers can come more into contact with higher concentrations of pesticides, leading to added health risks.

“Vermonters, and those in New Hampshire ... are often on the front lines before this stuff ever ends up on a shelf,” he said.

Cary Giguere, the director of public health and agriculture resource management for Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, pointed out that today’s pesticides are important tools designed to protect a crop from weeds, mildew and insects.

“Organic doesn’t mean that you’re not using pesticides,” said Giguere. “It means you’re using other (natural) pesticides.” Giguere hopes all farmers are educated in safe pest management practices to protect their workers as well as their customers.

“The compounds we’re using for pesticides these days are more sophisticated than the Rachel Carson days,” Giguere said. They’re still toxic in the wrong dose, but he noted that they have gotten a lot better at mimicking natural pesticides produced by the plants themselves.

“We’re getting more sophisticated, but we’re not at the level where a lot of folks would like to be,” he said. “But we’re heading there as a society. The chemistry is getting gentler and gentler.”

Giguere said the agency doesn’t routinely screen a “market basket” of consumer foods, though it does respond to complaints. He said he would examine the report to see if any action is warranted.

Little highlighted two state-specific goals that link up with the pesticide report. In Vermont, the group would like the Agency of Agriculture to resume publishing online statewide data on pesticide use, which stopped with the 2013 figures.

Giguere said that the consolidation of computer services years ago made it harder for officials to accurately update their online pesticide data.

“It’s growing pains in terms of IT infrastructure,” he said.

The information is still being collected, and they’ve signed a contract that should enable them to resume that functionality.

“It’s not only important for the public, it’s important for us to make regulatory decisions,” Giguere said.

In New Hampshire, Little is hopeful for a state bill that would restrict pesticides that can be harmful to bees and other pollinators.

“No bees, no food. It’s really that simple,” he said. “It’s a problem that touches all of us.”

Fawn Gaudet is with the New Hampshire Save Our Pollinators Coalition, and she worries about the decline in bees she’s seen and the effect that could have on the food supply.

“We need to have pollinators for our food system to survive,” she said. “It’s vital.”

Gaudet’s goal is to get as many lawmakers as possible to support HB 646, which currently has 10 Democratic sponsors. She said she’s found lawmakers responsive but hopes more will sign on.

“This is an ongoing pollinator crisis that needs action by our lawmakers,” she said.

Matt Golec can be reached at mattgolec@gmail.com.