An annual monitoring report found traces of pesticides in organic food products for the first time, challenging public perceptions that organic products are free of synthetic plant protection products.

96% of food samples analysed complied with the legal Maximum Residues Levels (MRLs) for pesticides and 4% exceeded them, according to the report, published on Thursday (9 July) by the Parma-based European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

This year's results, which cover samples collected in 2007, compare favourably with 5% of samples which exceeded limits the previous year.

In total, residues of 354 different pesticides were found in measurable quantities in fruit and vegetables, while residues of 72 different pesticides were recorded in cereals. 

For the vast majority (96%), the residue levels are considered within acceptable limits.

Maximum residue levels (MRLs) are generally-acceptable limits of pesticide deposits, which remain after fruit or vegetables are cleaned up and above which consumption in large quantities could present a risk for human health. 

The report stresses that "in most cases the MRLs are well below the toxicologically acceptable residue levels," adding that "if a residue exceeds the MRL, it is not necessarily true that the consumer is at risk".

The report did not provide conclusions on the reasons for MRL surpluses, saying that reporting countries "should be encouraged to provide more detailed information in the future".

Organic food

A novelty in this year's report was that, for the first time, countries also provided Europe-wide data on pesticides in organic food. 

While conventionally grown cereal, fruit and vegetables tend to exceed pesticide limits more frequently than organic food, the very presence of pesticide residue in the latter could raise eyebrows as these products are usually marketed as pesticide-free.

"It is true that pesticide residues were found on those samples too," said Ian Palombi, a communications officer at EFSA. However, he added that samples of organic fruit and vegetables had a generally lower rate of MRL surpluses (1.24% of all organic samples) in comparison to conventionally grown cereals, fruit and vegetables (3.99% of samples analysed).

The EFSA report underlines that no specific pesticide residue limits for organic products are currently established at EU level at this stage. For these products, the same levels as conventional products therefore apply, the report notes.

In addition, Palombi said that some EU countries were unable to report results for organic food due to "deficiencies in the data management system implemented at national level".