Research released yesterday (20 September) has revealed worrying statistics on the amount of pesticides contained in the fruit and vegetables we eat. Independent scientific tests, which were carried out on a random 2500 food samples from retailers across the UK, found that 27% of the food tested contained residues of pesticides which were 1.6% above the legal limit, or the maximum residue level (MRL).

The baby foods tested were found to be pesticide free, but scientists expressed concern about imported pears, the yield and shape of which are improved by the pesticide chlormequat, and Spanish peppers. Since the tests were carried out, however, Spain has reduced the amount of insecticide it uses.

Sir John Krebs, chairman of the Food Standards Agency, was anxious to note, "This report covers the year before the FSA came into existence. It shows that of the 2,500 food samples tested, only two presented possible health risks to the public and speedy and appropriate action was taken to deal with those incidents."

The main reaction to the tests was in the environmentalist camp, where Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, pointed out that while 97% of UK crops are routinely sprayed, pesticides will keep turning up in food. The Friends of the Earth group claimed that some apples are sprayed with pesticides up to thirty five times before they reach the market and that these cannot always be removed with washing or peeling. One reason for the findings may be that while UK farmers are only permitted to use certain pesticides for certain crops, the report suggests that many have used chemicals that were not approved.

The government has maintained that it is fully assessing the risk posed to consumers, but Friends of the Earth spokeswoman, Sandra Bell, was sceptical because the effects of cumulative "cocktail" pesticide intake has not been researched: "Testing pesticides on an individual basis neglects the fact that in reality you're exposed to a number of pesticides in an average meal. It's the way those pesticides interact with each other that could be of concern." Krebs has attempted to reassure consumers that "the FSA is seeking expert advice on this from a working group of the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products, and the Environment (COT)."

Bell maintains however that, "it is unacceptable for government advisers to say that particle residue levels are safe when no-one knows what long-term effects pesticides may have on our health."

Professor Ian Shaw, the chairman of the Pesticides Residue Committee (PRC), believes that the findings should not cause concern amongst consumers, for whom he claims there is more chance of getting run over on the way to buy the food than there is risk in eating food with pesticides, but the environmental debate has been publicly re-opened, and for the time being looks set to continue.