The question around whether our food is safe is one that never really goes away.

The most recent threat to our stomachs and our health in general has, of course, been the increasingly apparent threat of ultra-processed foods.

A series of scary revelations over the past six months have ensured UPFs are now firmly in the crosshairs of the health lobby, and they’ve also started to sound alarm bells within food sector boardrooms and among shoppers around the health impacts of UPFs, and what even constitutes an ultra-processed food.

Indeed, a pan-European study published in February by the EIT Food Consumer Observatory revealed 65% of European consumers believed ultra-processed foods were “unhealthy” and would cause health issues later in life.

And almost a million shoppers a month were turning away from ultra-processed food products, according to a poll for The Grocer towards the end of February.

But those looking to ditch UPFs by increasing their five a day may well have been equally shocked to hear the alarming news, published today, that many of our favourite fresh fruit & veg items may also pose potential threats to our health – due to them being riddled with so-called ‘forever chemicals’, also catchily known as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS pesticides.

Which fruit & veg contain pesticides?

This is not the first time fruit & veg pesticide residues have been in the news.

But the latest research by campaign group Pesticide Action Network UK (claimed to be the biggest of its kind) found 10 different PFAS pesticides were present in spices and a range of fruit & veg sold in UK supermarkets.

PAN analysed data from the UK government’s own residue testing programme for its research, finding that strawberries carried the highest levels of PFAS, with 95% of the 120 samples tested by the government in 2022 containing evidence of the chemicals.

After strawberries, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes and peaches/nectarines were most frequently found to contain the pesticides, with over 38% of each product having the chemicals detected.

PFAS are a family of 10,000 chemicals which are branded as ‘forever chemicals’ because of their ability to persist in the environment and accumulate in the blood, bones and tissue of living organisms. The campaign group added that estimates of the time it takes PFAS to fully degrade in the environment range from a decade to over 1,000 years.

Read more: Potentially hazardous chemicals found on supermarket fruit & vegetables

And while the chemicals were present in a variety of pesticides currently approved for use in the UK, they are also found in a host of household products, from non-stick cookware to food packaging in addition to drinking water and even soil.

But just like with UPFs, there are still massive gaps in knowledge around these chemicals and their potential impact on health, according to PAN spokesman Nick Mole, who warned it was “urgent” we develop a “better understanding of the health risks associated with ingesting these ‘forever chemicals’ and do everything we can to exclude them from the food chain”.

PAN is calling for a massive clampdown on the 25 PFAS currently in use in the UK, of which six are classified as “highly hazardous”.

Fresh concerns over food safety

It added that the Environment Agency did not actively sample rivers for any of the 25 PFAS pesticides, despite the threat of run-off from farm use into rivers, before slamming “the UK government’s much-delayed plans for limiting the negative impacts of PFAS focus solely on industrial chemicals, ignoring pesticides entirely”.

For its part, Defra today said government set “strict limits on the pesticides residue levels in both food for consumers and feed for animals”.

These limits were set to protect public health and “set below the level considered to be safe for people to eat, as well as applying to both food produced in the UK and those imported from other countries”, a spokesman pointed out.

And to add a layer of balance, two expert chemists from Lancaster University and Stockholm University both stressed to The Times today that PAN’s analysis of test results was for traces below maximum residue levels, while PFAS were also a “very broad group” with not all chemicals equally toxic.

Nonetheless, these new revelations will doubtless raise fresh concerns around food safety, at a time when fresh produce sales are already down due to the impact of inflation, and amid a collapse of fruit & veg sales amid poorer households. The Grocer reported in February 60% of food-insecure households were buying less fruit than they normally would, while 44% were buying fewer vegetables.

Sales of bacon plummeted following claims in a WHO report in 2015 linking consumption to cancer. The fruit & veg sector will be hoping to avoid a similar fate in the wake of today’s revelations.