(UPDATED COVERAGE, May 26) Don’t worry. Eat produce.

Overall pesticide residues found on fresh produce and other foods are at levels below the tolerances set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That was the lead message from USDA Agricultural Marketing Service administrator Rayne Pegg in a letter accompanying the much anticipated release of the Pesticide Data Program summary for 2009.

The 19th annual summary showed that in 2009, residues exceeding the EPA tolerance were found in 0.3% of the samples tested. Residues with no established tolerance were found in 2.7% of the samples, according to the report, released May 24.

In comparison, residues exceeding EPA tolerances in 2008 were detected in 0.5% of the 11,960 samples. Residues with no established tolerance were found in 3.7% of the samples in 2008, according to the USDA.

The 2009 annual report also included a two-page file called “What consumers should know.” That document explained the regulatory framework in place to protect consumers.

“There are many pesticides available for use on the same crop. However, not all crops are treated with these pesticides, and pesticide treatments vary according to crop geographical location, time of year, climatic conditions, and pest and disease pressures,” the document said.

In 2009, fresh produce accounted for 9,231 of the more than 13,000 samples of food tested, AMS spokesman Michael Jarvis said. More than 1.8 million analyses were performed on the 13,000 samples tested, Jarvis said.

“We still encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables in every meal as part of a healthy diet,” he said.

Consumers also are encouraged to rinse fruits and vegetables before consuming, he said.

Jarvis said the USDA report aims to be clear.

“There is a lot of confusion out there about pesticide residues, we are just trying to demystify that,” he said.

The report, along with an explanatory guide for consumers, can be found here.

Residue rage

The annual summary has become a flashpoint for the produce industry as mounting anecdotal evidence suggests a substantial number of consumers use a “Dirty Dozen” list created by an activist group make shopping decisions.

For more than a decade, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group has used post-harvest pesticide residue data from the USDA pesticide residue summary, along with data from the Food and Drug Administration to compile its annual shopper’s guide list to produce and pesticides.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said in a May 25 news release that consumers will be able to use the new data to “make informed choices to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables while minimizing pesticide exposure.”

In June 2010, the Watsonville, Calif.-based Alliance for Food and Farming announced the launch of a campaign to provide a science-based perspective on the issue.

Marilyn Dolan, executive director for the alliance, said in a May 25 news release that the USDA’s new report revealed conclusions similar to previous reports, showing that more than 99% of food samples analyzed did not contain pesticide residues above safety levels set by the U.S. EPA.

“For me it is always heartening to see the very small fraction of samples that exceed tolerance because that is testimony to the fact that the existing regulatory structure and industry use results in a safe and affordable food supply,” Hank Giclas, senior vice president of science, technology and strategic planning at Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., said.

Produce advocates earlier this year asked officials at USDA and other federal agencies to take a more active role in defending federal regulation of pesticides and to prevent the report from being sensationalized by activists to scare consumers.

The Environmental Working Group recently asked the USDA to step up testing of pesticide residues on food consumed by children and criticized what they called the industry’s attempt to “thwart” the release of the data, which is typically issued at the beginning of the year.