More than 98 per cent of foods tested last year had pesticide levels below the legal maximum limit, and even those that exceeded the limit posed no risk to adults, children or babies, according to a report by the Working Party on Pesticides' Residues, which did the research.
Professor Ian Shaw, chairman of the working party, said the findings were "reassuring", with almost three-quarters of the samples being free from detectable residues. But the report did reveal that traces of toxic chemicals, including some banned in the United Kingdom, were found in some foods sold by all the big supermarket chains.
Some pears were found to contain chlormequat, a growth regulator used in Holland and Belgium, and there was evidence of the illegal use of the fungicide iprodione in lettuce. Round lettuce was found to contain excessive levels of the organophosphate malathion, while lindane was detected in chocolate. Lindane has been identified as an "endocrine disruptor" - a chemical that mimics the female hormone, oestrogen, and can cause cancer and fertility problems.
Campaigners against pesticides said the residues may accumulate in the body, causing long-term problems.The Consumers' Association said the findings of the report were "unacceptable". Sue Davies, a policy researcher, said: "Given that consumers are already worried about food safety, we think these findings are particularly worrying. The Government must take action to make sure levels are reduced."
Barbara Dinham, programme director of the Pesticides Trust, said: "We do not want to create a health scare and put people off eating fruit and vegetables, and the residue levels found were very small, but the Government and the food industry cannot afford to be sanguine about this."
The working party tested 2,187 samples of fruit and vegetables and found 73 per cent had no detectable residues, 25.7 per cent had residues below the maximum recommended limit and 1.3 per cent contained residues above the limit - a level of approved use of the pesticide set by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Professor Shaw, head of toxicology at the University of Central Lancashire, added: "We will keep a close watch on any areas where standards are being breached, and ensure all results are published. None of the evidence raises concern for humans, including babies and toddlers." Pesticide residues had been found in some organic food but not at sufficiently high levels to suggest the farmer used it in production, he added.
The National Farmers' Union said it was not in anyone's interests to produce unhealthy food. A spokeswoman said: "The recommended limits are set by scientists and medical experts with a large margin to ensure human safety. The industry is constantly looking for ways to reduce pesticide usage while still providing consumers with top-quality food at competitive prices."