The General Accounting Office (GAO) recently released a report critical of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) pesticide residue monitoring programs for food. The report, “Food Safety – FDA and USDA Should Strengthen Pesticide Residue Monitoring Programs and Further Disclose Monitoring Limitations,” recommends that the FDA and the USDA make a number of substantive changes to their pesticide monitoring programs. This includes expanding the number of food samples tested, focusing testing more on pesticides that have Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established tolerances (as opposed to testing for pesticides used overseas that don’t have EPA tolerances), and disclosing more clearly in their respective annual reports that they don’t test for all pesticides used on food.

Although a number of these recommendations may require support from Congress to increase agency funding, over the near term the FDA and the USDA will likely expand monitoring coverage to a number of common pesticides previously ignored. This could have significant implications for the food industry, especially if expanded testing uncovers regulatory violations.

As background, the FDA and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) are responsible for testing the US food supply for pesticide residues. The FDA’s and the FSIS’ findings are used to enforce the residue tolerance levels set by the EPA, while the AMS’ data is used to give the EPA an idea of dietary exposures to pesticides from year to year. While the FDA is responsible for testing all produce, dairy products, seafoods, and most processed foods, the USDA is responsible for testing poultry, meat, and processed egg products. The bulk of the pesticide monitoring task, however, falls on the FDA, which is responsible for monitoring residues in approximately $400 billion worth of domestic foods and $50 billion in imported foods. Over the past few years, these testing programs have generally shown low rates of pesticide residue violations.

With respect to the FDA, the GAO report notes that the agency conducts pesticide residue testing on less than one-tenth of one percent of all imported fruits and vegetables and on less than one percent of domestic fruits and vegetables. Such limited testing makes it difficult for the FDA to achieve “statistically valid” results, as required by its statutory mandate. The GAO report further notes that the FDA does not test foods for many commonly-used pesticides for which the EPA has set strict residue limits and that this lack of testing for certain pesticides should be disclosed by the FDA in its annual reports.

The FDA has responded by stating that it will investigate the feasibility of changing its testing model, but that such a change would require additional resources. In addition, the FDA has responded to the GAO report by stating that it will not follow the GAO’s recommendation to disclose the names of pesticides it does not test for as users could “more easily circumvent” the testing program if it did.

The GAO found that the FSIS and the AMS pesticide monitoring programs do employ statistically sound sampling methods. However, like the FDA, the FSIS also does not test for all pesticides with established tolerances and does not disclose this information in its annual pesticide monitoring report. In addition, the AMS does not fully disclose the limits of its data collection related to sampling methodology. In response, the USDA has agreed to begin disclosing the names of pesticides it does not test for in its annual pesticide monitoring report. The USDA has also agreed to provide more detailed information about its pesticide sampling plans.

The GAO’s review of the FDA/USDA pesticide programs was originally requested by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY). Based on the GAO’s findings, Rep. Tonko has said both agencies need to devote more resources to pesticide residue monitoring going forward.