The Food Standards Agency said yesterday that people no longer need to wash and peel vegetables as a precaution against pesticide residues – advice immediately condemned as irresponsible by consumer groups and environmentalists.

The agency said that although it was sensible to wash fruit and vegetables for reasons of general hygiene it considered that washing and peeling was not required as a protection against pesticide residues because they were too low to pose a risk.

The environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth and the Consumers' Association accused the agency of ignoring scientific evidence suggesting that fruit and vegetables sold in Britain continue to be contaminated with significant levels of pesticide in the skin.

Sheila McKechnie, director of the Consumers' Association, said the long-standing advice on peeling and washing was a "sensible precaution", particularly for small children.

"Any review of the Food Standards Agency's advice on washing and peeling fruit and vegetables would be premature, and the Consumers' Association is concerned about how the review of this advice seems to have come about," Ms McKechnie said.

"Fruit and vegetables still contain pesticide residues. Figures show 72 per cent of apples and 81 per cent of pears have residues, and it has recently been reported that 61 per cent of grapes and 63 per cent of kiwi fruit contained toxic chemicals," Ms McKechnie said.

The agency said the original "advice" on washing and peeling fruit and vegetables was in fact a misinterpretation of a government information leaflet issued in 1997 about pesticide residues. Although the leaflet recommended washing fruit and vegetables before eating, and peeling them if they were to be given to children, this was not meant to be a general precaution against food poisoning not pesticide residues.

A spokeswoman said: "A huge confusion arose in 1997 and the impression was created it was necessary to wash and peel fruit and vegetables because of pesticide residues in order to make them safe."

To clarify the position, the agency asked the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides to review the evidence and to form an opinion on whether it was necessary to wash and peel fruit and vegetables.

Professor David Coggan, the committee's chairman, admitted there had been some uncertainty in the past He said: "There had been new research which showed there was more variation in pesticide residues within a crop than previously suspected. It was unclear how much this variation was and what its implications would be, whether it would be eroding safety margins a lot. Therefore, this was sensible precautionary advice at the time. There's been a lot more research conducted since and that's resolved the uncertainty and so we are able to revise the advice."

The Food Standards Agency said it would be unacceptable if pesticide residues were so high that fruit and vegetables had to be washed and peeled as a safeguard. It said: "If fruit and vegetables do contain any residues, consumers can be confident that they are only present at levels well below those that might be harmful to health."

Friends of the Earth said it had written to ministers urging them not to abandon the advice on washing and peeling because residues were still a health risk. "The Government should be doing more to reduce pesticide use, and should ensure that fruit ... is free of toxic residues," said Sandra Bell, food and farming campaigner. "Until the Government can be certain that the fruit and veg is residue free, the peeling advice must remain."