The discovery of the highly toxic insecticide dimethoate in Australian capsicum labelled as ‘Product of New Zealand’ in an Auckland Woolworths supermarket, shows the need for mandatory Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL), according to the Soil & Health Association's September Organic NZ magazine.
“This is a clear breach of both voluntary CoOL at the supermarket, but also of the Fair Trading Act by NZ Hothouse whose labelled “Summer House by NZ Hothouse 3Pack Capsicum” appeared to have been “topped up” with Australian produce dipped in dimethoate,” said Soil & Health spokesperson Steffan Browning.
“The New Zealand name was dominant on the packaging with a tiny Produce of Australia label needing a lens to find.”
Food choice undermined
He said New Zealanders must be able to choose what country they buy from, but when repackaging with Australian tomatoes may be happening by some New Zealand packhouses, that choice could not be guaranteed.
New Zealand produce has stood up to testing better than Australian samples with four out of six New Zealand loose tomato samples showing no pesticide residues at all, and none containing dimethoate, he said.
Dimethoate was found in Australian tomatoes, capsicum and zucchini from Countdown Blenheim, with the level in zucchini more than twice the Maximum Residue Level (MRL). Zucchini and capsicums, which were labelled only as “Imported” did not mention Australia as their country of origin.
Unlabelled capsicum from PaknSave Moorhouse Ave Christchurch also contained dimethoate.
Australian produce treated for fruit fly
Dimethoate, a systemic organo-phosphate insecticide, is used as an insecticidal dip to kill the Queensland fruit fly in produce imported from Australia to New Zealand. The fruit fly would cause severe damage to the New Zealand horticulture industry if it were released.
However dimethoate and the related chemical omethoate, which is even more toxic, have also been found in the residue tests of Australian produce. They cannot be removed by washing.
Both are endocrine and nervous system disruptors, reducing testosterone levels and causing infertility. They can also cause birth defects, a variety of cancers including leukaemia, and can suppress the immune system.
Of further concern is their heightened effect when in combination with other chemical residues including medicinal drugs. As an example of this, pre-treatment of rats with phenobarbital resulted in a threefold increase in the acute toxicity of omethoate (1, Menzor and Best, 1968).
Dimethoate not used on NZ produce
“ New Zealand tomato growers do not use dimethoate or omethoate and New Zealanders must be able to choose the origin of their products as part of their own health choices,” said Mr Browning.
Soil & Health sampled produce from stores in four centres recently as part of its investigation into endosulfan residues in conjunction with Pesticide Action Network with the results published in Organic NZ magazine.
Some overseas produce was also targeted to identify any insecticide residues. Twenty four produce samples were taken with endosulfan and dimethoate detection in mind. Multi residue testing showed that only 25% of samples had no detectable residue.
Breaches of Country of Origin labelling protocol
“While initially targeting endosulfan in support for calling for that pesticide’s withdrawal from New Zealand use, findings of dimethoate in ‘NZ Product’ showed serious breaches of the voluntary Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) protocol that the main supermarket chains Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprises say they use,” said Mr Browning.
“The NZ Hothouse capsicums labelled as being of New Zealand origin proved to be from Australia, with toxic dimethoate residues being the giveaway.”
“These results support our call for Mandatory Country of Origin Labelling. Pesticide residues in imported food and the health effects of them are an urgent consumer and health issue."
Voluntary labelling unreliable
Voluntary labelling is not working, either not at all or is poorly utilized, and certainly not enforceable, although fantastic labelling examples, such as my local Blenheim New World do exist, he said.
Soil & Health has recently submitted the pesticide residue information to the Parliamentary Health Select Committee in support of the 39,000 signature Green Party- initiated petition calling for mandatory CoOL.
A submission of Horticulture NZ (HortNZ) to the Health Select Committee supporting mandatory CoOL, disagrees that CoOL is a food safety issue.
Mr Browning said “Soil & Health agreed with the intent of HortNZ’s submission “expecting consumers to make their purchasing decisions based on numerous personal responses to a product. Trust in the safety record of the country of origin is only one reason for making or not making a purchase."
Food safety confidence misplaced says S & H
However Soil & Health disagreed with HortNZ’s “total confidence in the New Zealand Food Safety Authority’s (NZFSA) ability to monitor and regulate our food supply to the highest standard,” or that “country of origin labelling is not a food safety issue,” he said.
Horticulture NZ is opposed to dimethoate use and has indicated the phase out of endosulfan but it needed to work harder on its members to prevent the type of results Soil and Health's residue test found.
“One rogue grower in Marlborough had all three produce samples testing above MRLs and effectively all cucumber, cherry tomato and capsicum results showed pesticide residues."
Finding no residues in New Zealand or Chinese garlic was positive, although residue tests for acid herbicide were not run.
He said there were good examples of biological control of pests with low pesticide use among HortNZ producers, including organic growers not using any of the pesticides that were picked up in the residue tests.