A report by the global food source monitoring company Food Sentry ranked ‘excessive or illegal pesticide contamination’ as the number one risk to consumers from the 3,400 verified worldwide instances of food safety violations in 2013. The incidents related to products (raw or minimally processed foods such as seafood, vegetables, fruits, spices, dairy, meats, grains, and nut and seeds) exported from 117 different countries, with the dataset compiled from many sources including regulatory bodies in the EU, US and Japan. However, with no country inspecting more than 50% of imported food, and some countries (i.e. US) inspecting less than 2%, the figures for food safety incidents linked to pesticides risk could be even higher.

What are 'safe' levels?

In food products, safe levels of pesticide residues such as neonicotinoids (i.e. clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiametoxam), diphenylamine (DPA), carbendazim, and thousands of others are governed by the use of maximum residue limits (MRLs).
International guidance on MRLs for specific food items or groups of food are set by the Codex Committee on Pesticide Residues (CCPR) based on scientific advice from the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR). The JMPR carries out MRL supervised field trials in accordance to good agricultural practice, and toxicological evaluations to determine the highest dosage with no adverse effect on test animals. An acceptable daily intake (ADI) is then estimated, taking into consideration a series of ‘safety factors’, and the ADI is then expressed in mg/kg of body weight that a person can safely consume over the duration of their lifetime. Codex member countries can then participate in CCPR and Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) sessions and adopt, if all in agreement, the proposed MRL. To date, CAC has established MRLs for over 2,400 pesticides.
Further to CAC guidance on international MRLs, each country can set its own nationally accepted limits for pesticide residues depending on national conditions and regulations.

An Apple a Day...

The confusion between exactly what level of pesticide residues constitutes an ‘excessive or illegal pesticide contamination’ is why different governmental regulations for national MRLs make the same product legal in one country yet banned in another. Apples have recently hit the headlines (link) as one such product due to the reduction on the permitted level for DPA in apples entering the EU. The reduction from 5 parts per million to 0.1ppm (Codex MRLs are set at 10ppm) led some US media to report that US apple growers are effectively ‘banned’ from exporting their product to the EU; because to meet the new regulations, US growers would need to invest in dedicated storage rooms and bins sterile of DPA and instead many will simply abandon the EU market and focus instead on the emerging, and less stringent, markets of Brazil and India. 

Consumer Confusion

During the last decade pesticide residues have seemingly ‘more than doubled’ according to the Pesticide Action Network UK report into analysis of UK governmental data on pesticide residues and foods such as bread. But this perception has to be balanced against the growing use of pesticides in agriculture and the improvements in testing that allow lower levels of detection. Consumer confusion on what is ‘safe’ can often be confounded by reports like PAN UK which also stated two thirds of bread in the UK contain pesticide residues; however, the report failed to educate the consumer on the fact that none of the pesticide residues found in the bread exceeded UK regulated MRLs.

Ultimately, for manufacturers seeking to responsibly manage the risk of pesticide residues in food, ensuring products meet the approved, regulated and legally binding limits of the country where a product is sold is the only effective method of control.

Compliance Against MRLs

Further information on pesticide MRLs and compliance to worldwide regulations can be found in a soon to be released SGS white paper. To pre-register for a copy click here.