Much of the fresh fruit and vegetables sold in big supermarkets has detectable pesticide residues including substances suspected of interfering with the hormone and nervous systems, Friends of the Earth warned yesterday.
The survey by the environmental group, based on data published by the Government's Pesticides Safety Directorate between 1998 and 2001, found that at least 40 per cent of fruit and vegetables sold by the top nine British supermarkets contained the residues.
Sandra Bell, a pesticide campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said there was "too much hype" from supermarkets about their plans to cut pesticide use, and not enough action. "Only the Co-op and Marks and Spencer have made a real commitment to getting pesticides out of their food," Ms Bell said.
But the supermarket chain Somerfield, which emerged worst from the analysis, with 60 per cent of its produce said to be affected, accused the group of causing unnecessary concern for consumers.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) also criticised the analysis, pieced together from the Government's own research on samples of fruit and vegetables taken randomly from the main supermarkets, because it did not mention that the residue levels never exceeded recognised safety limits, and only exceeded the "maximum residue level" (MRL) set by law in a handful of cases.
But Ms Bell said: "Even at low levels, there's cause for concern. We get exposed to a whole cocktail of pesticides, but they only test for them individually. We need to be concerned about total exposure."
The FSA did admit that its long-term aim, set in June, is to reduce the level of pesticide residues in food to zero – leading Friends of the Earth to call on the Government to put more funds into helping British growers produce residue-free food.
The short-term harm from the report, rather than the produce, could be substantial, Somerfield argued. "This will increase consumers' concern about these foods at exactly the time when people should increase the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables that they eat," said Peter Williams, chief spokesman for Somerfield. "We have just relaunched our 'five-a-day' campaign to get parents and children into the habit of eating five daily helpings of fresh fruit and vegetables. We need more understanding on residues, but the evidence overall is that a healthier diet is better for a healthier nation. There's a real danger that this will dilute that message."
Ian Brown, chairman of the Government's pesticides committee, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the MRL "isn't a safety level, it's a level set by good agricultural practice". He said that fruit or vegetables that tested within that level had a safety margin of "hundreds or even thousands. So the fact there is a residue there has no impact on health at all, even for vulnerable groups like toddlers."
Since the beginning of last month, new regulations have prohibited pesticides in processed baby food, a recognition, said Ms Bell, that infants need special protection. "But the same rules do not apply to fresh food, it seems," she said.
An FSA spokeswoman said it was meaningless to release a survey without mentioning how many samples exceeded the MRL. "You can't just remove pesticide residues," she said. "It's something that has to be done by the method of growing it." But she agreed that the agency had set itself a target of reducing the amount of residue – in effect, the MRL – to zero in "years, not decades". The present level is set by growers, she said, who determine what they will be able to achieve.
The latest quarterly figures released yesterday by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs showed that 17 per cent of food samples tested had residues, compared with an average of 45 per cent for the whole of 2001.
However, only 1 per cent of the samples, 11 out of 1,041 tested, were found to contain pesticide residues above the MRL. Somerfield has issued a leaflet to all of its stores intended to reassure customers that there is no danger from eating its produce.