Chemical reaction from strawberries

Reporter: Helen Wellings

Fresh food from the supermarket and fruit stories contains potentially dangerous doses of chemicals and at least one that is banned. Australia is regarded as having the world's highest-quality produce but with the continuing appeal of organics, just how contaminated are fruit and vegetables?

"There is poor pesticide practice going on out there. People are using too much, using the wrong pesticides, either through being too enthusiastic or poor training," Choice magazine's Christopher Zinn said. There are 12 different fruit and vegetables that are most likely to contain pesticides.

Known as the dirty dozen, they are peaches, strawberries, nectarines, plums, apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, grapes, potatoes, spinach and raspberries. Christopher Zinn, from consumer magazine Choice, said of 27 samples of strawberries tested, three had higher than recommended MAX residue limits.

"The latest choice test results clearly show the delectable strawberry as having far greater pesticide residue than any of the other 12, some [are] laced with banned chemicals," he said. Of the conventionally grown strawberries tested bought from Coles, Woolworths/Safeway and independent fruit shops, a disturbing 11 per cent contained pesticide residues above the legal limit; 17 out of 27 samples, or 63 per cent, had residues of more than one pesticide; and four had four different pesticides. "Strawberries, because of the kind of fruit they are, you eat their skin, they do tend to have a higher residue of pesticide on them," Zinn said.

Jo Immig, of National Toxics Network, said young children especially are at high risk from even low levels of pesticides.And although no proof, there's growing evidence of links to cancer, Parkinson's disease and learning problems.

"The Choice results should alarm consumers. It is very frightening to find out that the everyday fruits and vegs
we are eating actually contain pesticide residues," she said. "I believe that regular ingesting of food with pesticide residues is a form of slow poisoning. "It's been measured in our blood samples and also in our breast milk samples."

Christopher Zinn said the tests found the potentially deadly pesticide Endosulfan-beta on some strawberries. Endosulphin belongs to the class of chemicals such as DDT. They are organochlorines and they build up in our bodies and our tissues and that chemical is being looked at globally for global phase-out. Endosulphin is banned for use on strawberries for good reason - it accumulates in our tissues and stays permanently. "It's no excuse for a government allowing high residues in our food or allowing the sorts of pesticides that cause residues in food," Immig said.

Most conventionally grown vegetables and fruit are given fertilisers and chemicals to protect them About 300 different chemicals are permitted but they must comply with the legal Maximum Residue Limits, MRLs, set by our watchdog, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand. Trouble is, it stopped testing four years ago. Martin Clark, of the Australian Chamber of Fruit and Vegetable Industries, said consumer groups are calling for a comprehensive national testing program."At present, testing is left to some state governments under their individual laws, but the types of tests are limited and testing isn't regular," he said.

"We test produce from all the central markets from around the country but we take samples every week or every two weeks."He said testing for pesticides is adequate. The ACFV last year tested almost 4700 fruit and vegetables for 110 chemicals.

The verdict - 80 samples had pesticide residues exceeding the legal limits, by up to 15 per cent. And 107 samples contained residues of pesticides not allowed on fruit and vegetables. Overall, 3.5 per cent failed the tests. "It is a concern. It is certainly something that the industry will address," Clark said "The residues should not be above the MRL, it is a legislative requirement." So where does all this leave you when next you buy your fruit and veg? The best advice from the man from Choice. "You need to know what fruit and vegetables tend to have the higher residues. Then you can take the steps to either switch to organic or wash, peel, or prepare them to reduce you exposure," Christopher Zinn said.