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Pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables

Driven by health concerns, the government monitors residue levels in food consumed in the UK.

image: poster dirty dozen clean fifteen fruit veg

Pesticides used in agriculture can often leave detectable traces of chemicals in, or on, our food known as ‘residues’. The residues detected on a food item will depend on which pesticides have been used and how persistent they are, in other words, how long they take to decompose.

Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK has analysed and compiled the most recent government data and turned it into a handy list you can take when you go shopping.

The ‘Dirty Dozen’ list is based on how many of the samples tested revealed residues of more than one pesticide. The UK's regulatory system is only set up to assess the safety of one pesticide at a time and so misses what is often called ‘the cocktail effect’.

It is also worth bearing in mind that many of the pesticides used nowadays are ‘systemic’, which means that residues are contained within the entire piece of produce rather than just on the surface.

So peeling and washing fruit and vegetables will often be insufficient to remove all residues. The solution, a fully organic diet, can be difficult and expensive to achieve but the list can help you to work out which product to prioritise.

PAN suggests that shoppers buy organic whenever possible. Shoppers who can’t afford or access a fully organic diet can find out which items to prioritise by checking PAN UK’s Dirty Dozen list of the most affected fruit and vegetables. Some foods such as citrus fruits for example, have very high residues.

Supermarkets ranked on pesticide use

Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) have also recently ranked supermarkets on pesticides within their supply chains for the UK’s largest ten supermarkets. The pesticide chemicals in question include carcinogens and hormone disruptors, as well as bee-toxins and water contaminants shown to harm aquatic species.

Josie Cohen from PAN UK said

“While our ranking reveals that some supermarkets are doing much better than others, we found that they could all be doing more to phase out the most dangerous pesticides. While some of these chemicals are still used in the UK, many have been banned because of their impact on human health and the environment. But they are still allowed in many other countries where our food is grown, and where they routinely poison workers and wildlife and contaminate the natural environment.”

Infographic drawing with stack of 11 tins of food with supermarket names on each one. 1st equal Marks and Spencer, Waitrose. 3rd Coop. 4th Sainburys. 5th Morrisons. 6th Tesco. 7th Lidl. 8th Asda. 9th Aldi. 10th Iceland.

The findings of the report highlighted the following concerns:

  • Bee-toxic neonicotinoids are still used in the supply chains of all ten supermarkets.
  • Highly Hazardous Pesticides (a concept which originates from the UN) continue to be used in all UK supermarket supply chains.
  • While all supermarkets conduct residue testing on food items to check that pesticide levels don’t exceed legal limits, only two supermarkets have recently started publishing this information in detail (M&S and Co-op). Customers of the other eight supermarkets have no way of finding out which specific food items contain the most residues, making it impossible for them to make shopping decisions aimed at avoiding pesticides in their diets (other than choosing organic).
  • Six of the top ten supermarkets (Asda, Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco) continue to sell high-risk pesticide products (such as weedkillers), providing little or no information to customers beyond what is on the label on the potential risks to human health and the environment, or how best to avoid them. Of the remaining four, Iceland and M&S don’t have gardening ranges, and Co-op and Waitrose both took the hugely positive step of announcing an end to their sale of pesticides in 2021.
  • In general, the higher-end supermarkets are doing more to reduce pesticide-related harms linked to their global supply chains.

Unfortunately shoppers concerned about pesticides who are on lower incomes are often left with little choice but to shop at supermarkets with weaker standards.

The image below shows how the supermarkets were ranked by PAN UK for pesticides.

Take Action

PAN UK is calling for UK supermarkets to implement a range of detailed recommendations aimed at reducing pesticide-related harms linked to their supply chains.

Check PAN UK’s Dirty Dozen list for the fruit and vegetables most at risk of pesticide residues.

Check out our guide to supermarkets for alternatives to shopping at the big ten.

Find out more details of the supermarket pesticide ranking from PAN UK.

Write to the supermarkets via the PAN UK website to ask them to remove pesticides from their shelves.

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