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Is That Broccoli Safe? See How California Monitors Produce For Pesticides

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LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) —  We all know fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy diet, but do you really know what’s in them?

Last year scientists found illegal pesticide residues on snow peas from Guatemala and chili peppers from Mexico, for example.

CBS2’s Andrea Fujii got a rare look inside a Southern California lab that’s making sure the produce you purchase is safe to eat.

“We have a mission to protect the public,” environmental scientist Jahan Motakef said.

Motakef and his colleague, Kamrul Bhuiyan, of the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Pesticide Regulation, police the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. Their job is to make sure the food supply in Southern California is safe to eat.

“We are taking samples of produce to make sure the pesticide or produce that they sell to the public is safe. We have this monitoring program to see that this pesticide they use is registered for the use,” Motakef explained.

On a weekly basis, fruits and vegetables are collected throughout Southern California; data is input and then meticulously tucked away in ice coolers to preserve for lab analysis later in the day.

CBS2 took a rare look inside the Anaheim lab center for analytical chemistry.

Tiffany Tu, program manager for the food safety section, demonstrated how they detect for dangerous pesticide in produce.

“We log the sample in, we assign a unique ID. We chop the samples and then homogenize them. Then we extract them,” Tu explained.

The data is analyzed in 48 hours.

“This method, we analyze for 330 chemicals of interest,” she said.

The pesticide residue monitoring program has three labs in California — in Sacramento, Fresno and Anaheim.

If illegal amounts of pesticides are detected from samples collected, the lab contacts the grower, who is either fined or forced to eliminate that crop depending on the violation.

“Sometimes the produce comes from other countries, and in that case we contact the FDA and have the FDA contact that country,” Tu said.

The EPA sets strict limits, known as tolerances, for each type of produce. The random inspections are meant to verify that these limits are not exceeded in order to protect public health.

Of about 3,500 samples collected last year, 98 percent of all California grown produce sampled were in compliance with the allowable limits. More than half of the samples had no pesticide residues detected. Nearly 40 percent had pesticides within legal limits.

Almost 3 percent had pesticides over legal limits. And about 1 percent of samples had illegal pesticides not even registered for use.

As for the samples we collected?  All the produce passed the test. And some samples even had no pesticides at all.

That’s a relief for mom and health and wellness coach Lori Painter.

“Knowing there’s somebody going out there — to know that it’s being honored  — I think it’s huge and that’s awesome,” she said.

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