SACRAMENTO — 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. Much of that produce first lands on American shores in California, itself the nation’s fruit and vegetable basket.
Yet all produce is not created equal.
For instance, illegal pesticide residue regularly shows up 3 1/2 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 is sparking new debate from San Francisco, where a United Nations human rights investigator heard complaints this month about U.S. pesticide exports, to Washington, D.C., where it helped rekindle congressional support for “country of origin” labeling requirements in the pending farm bill.
Developing countries generally have few controls on pesticide use, which results in more residue on produce imported by 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 U.S. produce is much cleaner than Mexico,” Benbrook said. “I would say overall, California probably produces the cleanest produce in the world.”
California not only has what Benbrook called the world’s most restrictive regulations on pesticide use, safety and application, but its dry Mediterranean climate means growers need to use less pesticide than in more humid areas.
That helps makes it cleaner even than produce grown elsewhere in the United States, Benbrook said. For instance, he co-authored a 1999 Consumers Union report that found higher pesticide residue on U.S. crops like peaches, winter squash, green beans, apples and pears than was on similar foreign-grown produce.
The California Farm Bureau and 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.
“We certainly promote the fact that our produce is grown under these very strict and rigorous standards,” said farm bureau spokesman Bob Krauter.
“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 that has offices in Oakland and Washington, D.C. “This is indicative of the pesticide that’s out there.”
Though 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 state Department of Pesticide Regulation. It may have more residue in part to protect it because it is being shipped long distances, he said.
The state’s pesticide program is designed to intercept contaminated produce by sampling a small percentage at packing houses and produce terminals, then tracking problem shipments back to the grower, whose entire crop would then be suspect.
But foreign shipments are often more difficult to trace to their source, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded study last year. In addition, produce from several different growers and packers may be commingled in the same shipment.
Brank said California is working particularly hard to address that problem with Mexico because of the volume of Mexican produce, but hasn’t found a solution.
“More and more, Mexico has to obey all the standards of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). I don’t think there is much of a difference in standards,” said Bernardo Mendez, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco. “Maybe in some past years there has been some problem in enforcement, but that is getting better.”
Eighty-seven state and national farm groups are backing a country-of-origin labeling requirement in Congress’ pending farm bill, already approved by the House of Representatives, in part because of the pesticide issue.
“You know where your clothes come from, but you don’t know where your food comes from,” said Laura Johnston of the National Farmers Union. “It kind of makes a mockery of the strict regulations we have here when we import food from other countries that don’t have those regulations.”
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