Toxic tater treats: Deadly pesticide use on sweet potatoes in China

Sweet potatoes, a common ingredient in dog treats imported from China, could have one of the most acutely hazardous pesticides on the planet in it.  Farmers in China admit to using aldicarb in quantities “three to six times” the recommended level to grow commodities such as sweet potatoes and ginger adding to the country’s growing list of food scandals.

Acute toxicity

Although the Chinese government has banned some of the worst pesticides, overall use continues to climb. Efforts to reduce pesticide use or even ensure quality control have been basically useless as long as conflicts of interest inherent in the agricultural and pesticide supervision systems continue to exist.

Aldicarb, manufactured by Bayer CropScience, is considered the most toxic insecticides in use on field crops today. However, due to the high acute toxicity of aldicarb, its use has been banned in Europe and is currently being phased out of use in the US.

Banned in the U.S.

In 2010, the US Environmental Protection Agency and Bayer agreed to a complete ban on aldicarb use by 2018. Risk assessments conducted by the EPA found aldicarb no longer met food safety standards and had posed “unacceptable dietary risks”, especially to infants and young children.

Incredibly, Bayer said they are cooperating with the EPA even though it “does not fully agree” with the Agency’s risk assessment, adding that the analysis “does not mean that aldicarb poses an actual risk” to consumers.

Bayer is a bad actor

“After thousands of poisonings, it is mind-boggling that aldicarb is still in use,” said Steve Scholl-Buckwald, managing director of the environmental group Pesticide Action Network North America. “The wheels just grind so, so slowly. It never should have been registered in the first place back in 1970 and by the mid-1980s there was sufficient data to suggest it should have been taken off the market.”

Aldicarb was the first of the so-called “bad actor” pesticides that Pesticide Action Network targeted in 1985 for worldwide ban.

Voluntary schmoluntary

Scholl-Buckwald said that the EPA relies mostly on voluntary agreements, instead of bans, to avoid lawsuits from manufacturers. “The system is designed to leave things like this on the market as long as possible. It’s innocent until proven guilty. It’s really unconscionable that it takes literally decades to do this,” he said.

After 40 years, the question is why should there be a phaseout period at all and why U.S. pet food companies importing commodities from China still insist there is nothing for consumers to worry about.

Aldicarb – National Library of Medicine database
Chemical summary of aldicarb
Aldicarb use in China
Farmers in China admit using aldicarb
EPA aldicarb fact sheet
Aldicarb phaseout
PAN Pesticide Action Network pesticide primer
PAN Pesticide Database
PAN’s what’s on my food database
Sweet Potatoes: Pesticide Residues Found by the USDA Pesticide Data Program

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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, the author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and consumer advisor. Help support her work by making a donation today.

Comments (14) Write a comment

  1. I trust nothing edible from China..nor any other ingestible product, like toothpaste. Too many horror stories, too many failures, from China… Zero credibility. Ditto aqua-cultured seafood from Viet Nam (jumbo shrimp)…ditto fresh fruits, canned fruits from such places. Absolutely no trustworthy supervision exists in use of toxic pesticides in these third-world places, etc. Scares the beejeezus outa me.


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  3. Another toxic sweet potato product that ends up in pet food, although by a roundabout way, is the foliage, the above ground part of the potato. Sprayed with aldicarb to get to the poor potato. The foliage is dried and stored like alfalfa; prized in countries such as China, India, and so on, as a feed for animals. Then the beef or chicken eats it, and ultimately it ends up in pet food.

    To Ann: the “yams” that were recalled last year along with the Chicken Jerky treats, were sprayed with Phorate, a neurotoxin and insecticlde. Legal in India, where I believe the sweet potatoes came from. Mollie wrote about it back in in April 2012.


  4. Wouldn’t it be possible for a US-based company to import China-sourced sweet potato ingredients, then re-process them in the US, thereby avoiding the need to identify the country of origin? Pet food consumers seed sweet potato treats as an important treat used for weight reduction and in avoiding grain-based foods/treats. But in light of your essay, I would be reluctant, now…


    • Absolutely Peter. That’s why it always worries me when I see sweet potatoes on an ingredient list. It’s best to ask the mfg what country they source it from. Phorate is another chemical they use – I wrote about that as well earlier. Thanks for pointing that out – I should have made that clear in my article – it’s not just the treats!


  5. Are these Chinese sweet potatoes imported to the US? If so, do they end up in the grocery stores for human consumption or are they a variety only used for animal feed? If so, this is bad news for the animals and the humans that eat them or drink their milk. But as the US is also using this pesticide, can we assume that non-organic sweet potatoes are toxic?


    • You better believe it Mom! I wouldn’t assume anything at this point, I would rely on Cartified Organic fruits and veg only. And even that can be sketchy nowadays as we import Certified Organics from China as well! And some of those imports have certificates that are completely fabricated – as in fake.


  6. Okay….so this articles then brings the question, ” where are all the potatos in brands using sweet potatos in place of grain coming in from????” The implications of this article go much further then just “treats”. Having called several companies they will not reveal sources, they will not reveal inside or outside the US just that the sources including those in other companies are USDA approved.


    • Answer – China! Where everything is cheaper! As soon as a company says they can’t reveal their sources I say Buh Bye! Oh, and USDA approved only applies to meat, poultry and eggs, unless it is certified organic by the USDA’s National Organics Program (NOP) in which case that applies to all ingredients.


  7. I want to thank you for this and thank you for the information you provide. I don t say this often either! Now, I feed my doggie sweet potato and I usually buy organic, but I had no knowedge of these pesticides. I no longer even give her any dog treats. Dogs and cats because of their body size, even when adult are mire suceptibke to chemicals. Thank you again!


    • Aww, bless you June! This story is so much worse than I wrote about, but I didn’t want to overwhelm already overwhelmed petsumers. It’s not just aldicarb – it’s all the pesticides in use in China (and the U.S. for that matter) In the field, Chinese farmers often double or triple the dose of pesticides, either because they overestimate the potential crop losses or because they believe the pesticides they are using may be fake! Then, because high levels of pesticide use inevitably leads to pesticide resistance, stronger insects survive, giving rise to the next generation of resistant pests, which can then only be killed with even more toxic pesticides, if at all. They call it the “pesticide treadmill.” I call it tragic.


  8. Wonder if aldicarb was part of the poisoning problem when the China chicken wrapped with sweet potato started making dogs sick. Time to boycott imported sweet potato products from China.



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