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".
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".
Alfred Schädeli, from the Switzerland-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), said he found it "very surprising" that samples of organic fruits and vegetables contained pesticides above the legal limits.
"Organic farmers do not use synthetic pesticides or fertilisers at all," he said, suggesting however that "very little doses" of synthetic products could be present in the soil or air around biological farms.
"It is not because farmers used them in production," he stressed.
However, this view was not shared by Phil Newton, communications manager at ECPA, the European crop protection association, which represents manufacturers such as Bayer CropScience, BASF, Syngenta and Monsanto.
"All forms of agriculture use pesticides, including organic which are not free of residues," Newton said. "Our industry supplies these products to organic users" as well, he told EurActiv.
FiBL's Gabriela Wyss partly accepted Newton's claim. "It is absolutely true that pesticides are also used in organic farming," she said, insisting that the substances used there "are not synthetic pesticides" but "from natural origins".
"What makes a difference is how these products react in the environment," Wyss said, adding that pesticides used in organic farming "are toxic" but in "a very narrow time window" and "disappear very quickly in the environment".
Wyss suggested that generally the pesticide traces found in organic food might have come from persistent chemicals which were banned years ago and are still present in the soil or air. She said other sources could come "from spray drift and other situations where there are interfaces among organic and conventional environments".
"Our experience shows that cases with residues above set MRLs had their origin not in organic agriculture but from unintended or intended mislabelling or persistant compounds in the soils."
"Maybe we even have a fraud case and this is not an organic product," Wyss further suggested. "I would be interested to see what these cases are," she said. "I assume several of these are fraud," she added, saying the report could provide a basis for tightening controls in the biological farming sector.
ECPA's Newton agreed that organic farms should be monitored more strictly for compliance with pesticide use. "All products have effects that should be assessed, with best practices prescribed and monitored, including those used in organic. In order for reporting to be complete, organic use of pesticides must be included."