Wandering among rows of freshly spritzed produce at the grocery store, you’d hardly stop to consider whether the green paddles of Mexican cactus—known as nopales—contain enough toxic pesticides to make you sick. But according to a recent inspection report for California’s Department of Pesticide Regulations, you would be justified in being concerned.
Every year, the DPR collects samples of produce available for sale in California and tests them to ensure all items meet pesticide safety standards. The statewide report released Wednesday identified substantially high levels of illegal and toxic pesticides in samples of the cactus pads. Last year, 47 percent were so laden with chemicals that state officials had to issue a consumer warning.
The cactus from Mexico has frequented the Department of Pesticide Regulations list of tainted produce for years, even after multiple fines and health notices were issued to the growers and produce companies responsible.
Other produce that tested positive for illegal pesticide residue included ginger imported from China; limes, papaya, summer squash, tomatillos, chile peppers, and tomatoes from Mexico; and U.S.-grown spinach and kale.
However, more than 93 percent of the produce tested contained legal levels of pesticide residue, with 5.5 percent containing illegal residue and 1 percent containing it in excess.
“Cactus pads by far were the ones of major concern,” George Farnsworth, assistant director for the DPR’s pesticides-focused division, told the Los Angeles Times.
Monocrotophos, a highly toxic chemical found in the cactus samples, is not only a major cause of concern for consumers, who can experience flu-like symptoms from eating large quantities of it, but for the laborers harvesting it. In fact, the U.S. has banned the chemical since 1989, considering that it exposed farmworkers to the possibility of pesticide poisoning.
Agency officials cracked down on three Los Angeles produce importers this year, issuing an accumulated $38,000 in fines for the companies’ failure to adhere to regulations and repeated violations in selling tainted produce. Officials are also making trips south of the border to inspect the produce operations of Mexican growers.
“We have a very vigorous regulatory program around pesticides, and it works,” Brian Leahy, director of the DPR, told the Times. “We’ve been able, through these regulations and enforcement, to create a market that provides safe, reliable food.”