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A statewide sampling of produce grown in 2017 found pesticide residue exceeded limits in seven samples grown in Santa Barbara County, according to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Two-pound samples were randomly collected from stores, packing or distribution centers, farmers markets and fields across the state, and later tested at laboratories operated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture as part of annual testing.

While 96 percent of all sampled crops had no detectable pesticide residue, or residue below levels allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the 2017 data, which was released last month and is the most recent available, shows that 4 percent of products tested by the state violated federal guidelines.

"All of the samples (cited) had either too much [residue] or traces of pesticides that [growers] were not allowed to use," DPR spokesperson Charlotte Fadipe said of the results.

Domestic or international produce that reflects the state's ethnic and culinary diversity, as well as products that are commonly consumed by infants and children, treated with pesticides listed as carcinogens or reproductive toxins, or have a history of illegal pesticide residues are often targeted as part of the sampling. 

Of the 3,695 samples collected statewide in 2017, 149 samples exceeded federal pesticide residue limits. Thirty of those originated in California produce and seven samples were traced back to Santa Barbara County — 23.3 percent of the total number of California violations — according to analysis of data released by the DPR. 

The samples traced to Santa Barbara County were:

  • carrots grown in a Santa Maria field operated by Chino, California-based Gaytan Family Farm;
  • cilantro from Guadalupe-based Beachside Produce, collected from a retail location in Paso Robles;
  • cilantro grown by Santa Maria-based Gold Coast Packing, collected from a Sacramento wholesaler;
  • three samples of snow peas grown by A. Casas Farms, an Oceano producer with fields in Santa Maria, collected from wholesalers in Sacramento and San Francisco;
  • and a sample of leaf lettuce collected from a Sacramento wholesaler. No grower was identified.

Samples that exceeded established limits were either destroyed, converted into byproducts, or "reconditioned" — a process that requires growers to reduce or eliminate pesticide residue, then pay for tests to confirm that the product falls within EPA guidelines.

Fadipe said the amount of residue on samples that exceeded federal guidelines was not high enough to cause health defects or pose a danger to humans.

Santa Barbara County Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Rudy Martel said DPR utilizes its testing and reporting measures as a tool to make sure pesticides are used safely and in the right amount. Producers must comply with a battery of local, state and federal regulations that govern pesticides: any application must be recommended by a licensed pest control adviser and applied by an individual or company that is trained, licensed and insured to properly handle the chemical.

When products and produce exceed federal guidelines, Martel said DPR and the county Agriculture Commissioner's office investigate to determine where it was grown, how it came into contact with the pesticide, and whether the compound was properly applied. He said growers aren't intentionally saturating their products to violate established guidelines, noting that the decision to use a pesticide is not one that is made lightly.

"Growers don't [always] want to use pesticides; it's one of several tools they [use] in order to deliver the good-quality produce the customers expect," he said, pointing to both regulations and cost. "They would prefer not to use it, but sometimes they have to rather than lose a crop."

Pesticide reform activists contend, however, that the 4 percent rate poses too great a risk for consumers. Mark Weller, co-director for Californians for Pesticide Reform, a statewide coalition of groups advocating for greater restrictions on pesticide use, said that Californians who consume the five recommended servings of fruits and vegetables a day are consuming "poison" in the form of pesticide residue once a week. 

"That’s an unacceptable gamble if you’re eating non-organic produce," he added. One percent of organic produce tested by the state had illegal amounts of pesticide residue. 

Fadipe remains confident that the produce consumers across the state bite into on a daily basis is safe for consumption, noting that in some instances, pesticide residue found on crops can be traced to decades-old applications on the same plot of land.

"Ninety-six percent of samples had nothing illegal on them, in other words they pass," she added, comparing the results to students receiving high marks on a test. "Year after year we do this testing [and] year after year we find the samples are good to go. Consumers should not have anything to worry about."

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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