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Wednesday, 20 September, 2000, 02:21 GMT 03:21 UK
Tests spark pesticide concerns
2% of fruit tested had unacceptable residue levels
By BBC consumer affairs correspondent Karen Bowerman

Are you worried about what you are eating - and how safe it is?

Research published on Wednesday might give consumers a slightly better idea of how likely they are to be buying food that contains, or has been sprayed with pesticides.

Pesticides might escape detection by the naked eye, but an independent working party has found one in three pieces of fruit and veg tested at random, contained such residues.

Residue test samples
Celery heads - 72% had residues
Lettuces - 56%
Apples - 47%
According to a government report, almost 2% of the samples tested had higher levels than those permitted by law.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth claims some apples are sprayed with pesticides up to 35 times before they reach the shops.

But the government maintains it is committed to assessing the risk pesticide residues pose to the public, and is urging growers and retailers to make sure food is safe for consumers to eat.

Random tests

In the latest research, independent scientists tested 2,500 food samples chosen at random from supermarkets, grocers and market stalls across the UK.

They also tested imported food - including fruit, vegetables, cereals, meat and fish - though they concentrated largely on dietary staples such as bread, potatoes and milk.

Foods was sampled from supermarkets, grocers and markets
The food was tested to see if it had pesticide residues above the maximum residue level (MRL), which is set by law and differs depending on the type of food.

Farmers in the UK are only allowed to use certain pesticides for certain crops - though Wednesday's findings suggest some farmers had used pesticides which were not approved.

Exceeding the limit

The Pesticides Residue Committee (PRC) found residues in 27% of food tested - of these 2% had levels above legal, though not safety limits.

The kind of foods to look out for are lettuces, oranges, pears, apples, celery and carrots.

But scientists were most worried about imported pears and Spanish peppers - which if eaten in quantity could have caused stomach upsets, especially among small children.

Since tests on the peppers were carried out, Spain has managed to reduce its insecticide levels.

A pesticide called chlormequat is used to improve the yield and shape of pears.

It has never been licensed for use in the UK - yet last year pears sold and eaten here were found to contain up to five times more pesticide than the legal limit.

Some pears were a particular cause for concern
Cereal-based baby food, including porridge, rice and rusks were all tested, and found to be free of residues. The government demanded tighter regulations for baby food several months ago.

The chairman of the PRC, Professor Ian Shaw, claims overall the findings should not cause concern.

He said he was not worried, because he thought the "levels were what scientists would expect to find".

Prof Shaw said people had a much greater risk of getting run over on the way to buy the food, of choking on a brussel sprout than they would actually eating food which contained pesticides.

Environmentalist concerns

But environmentalists and consumer groups are still concerned by the findings.

It's the way those pesticides interact with each other that could be of concern

Sandra Bell, Friends of the Earth
Sandra Bell from Friends of the Earth warns that many pesticides are cannot be got rid of through washing or peeling.

She is worried the research did not fully assess the cumulative effect of pesticides.

Ms Bell says: "We're very concerned that the government still tests pesticides on an individual basis which neglects the fact that in reality you're exposed to a number of pesticides in an average meal that you eat.

"It's the way those pesticides interact with each other that could be of concern."

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01 Sep 00 | Health
Organic food 'no healthier'
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