Cilantro was a trendy topic in early June, but for the wrong reasons.
Recent results from the just-released U.S. Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program annual summary identified cilantro as the commodity with the most detected residues of unpermitted chemicals.
A May 31 article in The Chicago Tribune said federal testing turned up a wide array of unapproved pesticides on the herb cilantro and quoted a Food and Drug Administration official expressing concern about the issue.
The USDA’s 2009 summary of the Pesticide Data Program said that 184 samples of cilantro were tested, with pesticide detections on 2.1% of the samples and 43 pesticides identified in the results. That was more than expected, however, since there are only 32 registered pesticide uses for cilantro. The agency said that a number of the chemicals detected on cilantro are approved for use in parsley, a commodity similar to cilantro.
The USDA said in the report that growers’ apparent confusion about the uses registered for cilantro has been communicated to FDA.
The unfavorable coverage on wayward pesticide residues on cilantro comes after a letter to the industry from the Food and Drug Administration in March that recommended cilantro grower-shippers develop commodity-specific guidelines to reduce the chances of another salmonella outbreak.
Produce industry leaders said the USDA’s PDP report on cilantro indicates a regulatory issue, not a consumer safety issue.
Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said that nearly all detections of unregistered pesticides on cilantro were well below the Environmental Protection Agency–accepted tolerances for other commodities for which the pesticides were registered.
Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Watsonville, Calif. - based Alliance for Food and Farming said in an email that the group has consulted with scientists and other experts with respect to the residues found on cilantro in the recent PDP report. They agreed, she said, that the residues on cilantro are not a health concern for consumers.
“If there are concerns with any of the residues found, the USDA provides other regulatory bodies, such as EPA and FDA, with information so the issue can be corrected,” she said.
Whitaker said that parsley and cilantro are typically raised together, so he said it wasn’t unreasonable to think growers may have inadvertently over sprayed a chemical meant for parsley on part of a field of cilantro. What’s more, flat leaf parsley can be mistaken for cilantro in the market place. “It’s possible that some of the sample results were not correct,” he said.
The issue of FDA concern with the occurrence of salmonella on cilantro needs more research, Whitaker said.
“That clearly is a re-emphasis of what do we need to do in terms of Good Agricultural Practices, and what pieces of knowledge don’t we know that cilantro different from other crops,” he said.
Whitaker said that is something that many in the industry are looking at in terms of preparing a commodity specific guidance for cilantro and perhaps other herbs. He said the industry has responded to FDA requests for commodity specific guidance on melons, green onions, tomatoes and leafy greens and will do so again for cilantro.