97% of pesticide levels in Europe’s food legal, says EU agency


Insect control. [Pieter ban Marlon/Flickr]

A new report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has found that more than 97% of foods contain pesticide residue levels that fall within legal limits. Strawberries are the most likely to exceed safe limits, the agency found.

About 55% of the samples evaluated by EFSA were free of detectable traces of these chemicals, the agency said.

This means nearly half of food products in Europe contain residues of pesticides.

The highest rate of exceeding safety limits was for strawberries (2.5% of the sample), followed by lettuce (2.3%). They are especially sensitive to fungus and bugs and so undergo considerable spraying with pesticides.

The European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), a trade group representing the pesticides industry, hailed the EFSA report, saying it “confirms once again that Europe’s food supply is among the safest in the world.”

In a statement, ECPA said traces of pesticides exceeding the maximum residue levels (MRLs) were found more often in imported food (5.7%) than in samples originating from the EU and the European Economic Area (1.4%).

The EFSA report was based on almost 81,000 food samples collected from 27 EU member states, Iceland and Norway. 

Participating countries carried out two monitoring programmes for the report. A national programme designed by each country, and an EU-coordinated programme under which all national food control authorities monitor the same kinds of food products.

EFSA said 1.5% of the samples clearly exceeded the legal limits, even when measurement uncertainty was taken into account. The Parma-based agency said the results had triggered legal or administrative sanctions against the food business operators responsible.

‘Cocktail’ effects

More than one in four (27.3%) of the food samples contained traces of more than one pesticide. 

But health and environment organisations pointed out that EFSA did not examine the combined effects on humans of several pesticides residues. Toxicologists refer to this as the “cocktail effect”.

“Providing statistics of single residue level in food is too simplistic,” said Martin Dermine of Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe, a green campaign group.

“While 97% of food consumed across the EU does not exceed Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) for pesticides, the total number of residues found in food has grown in the past years, which is worrying as little is known about the combined effects of pesticides on human health,” Dermine said.

Tatiana Santos, a senior policy officer for Chemicals at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a network of green NGOs, believes EFSA should revise MRLs downwards because setting maximum limits is “highly theoretical” in her view.

“The only statistic that EFSA should be using to talk about the safety of food is the ‘zero residue’ figure,” Santos claimed.

EFSA responded to the criticism in an email to EURACTIV. It said that a full cumulative risk assessment was not included in the scope of the report.

“However, from EFSA’s assessment of exposure to single residues, and based on experience gained from the previous year’s report, we consider it unlikely that exposure to multiple residues present in products such as strawberries will lead to acute health concerns,” the agency replied. 

“EFSA is currently working on the full cumulative risk assessment, which will look at possible chronic health effects and will be based on samples from 2011, 2012 and 2013,” it said.

Amid growing public concern over the impact of pesticides, the European Commission presented in July 2006 a 'pesticides package', aimed at protecting human health and the environment from their dangerous or excessive use in agriculture. 

Agreement was reached in December 2008. The new regulations divide the EU into three zones (north, centre, south) inside of which mutual recognition of pesticides will become the rule.

However, member states will still be allowed to ban a product on the basis of specific environmental or agricultural circumstances. 

It also introduces bans on: 

  • Certain highly toxic chemicals, namely those which are genotoxic, carcinogenic or toxic to reproduction (unless their effect would in practice be negligible), and; 
  • neurotoxic, immunotoxic and certain endocrine-disrupting substances if deemed to pose a significant risk.  

However, the deal allows continued use of both the above-mentioned groups of chemicals for up to five years, if they are proven essential for crop survival. Otherwise, products containing certain hazardous substances are to be replaced within three years if safer alternatives are shown to exist.   

The deal on sustainable use of pesticides:

  • Asks member states to adopt national action plans on safer use of pesticides as well as overall usage reduction targets;
  • bans aerial crop spraying, with exceptions subject to approval by member-state authorities;
  • asks member states to establish approporiate measures, such as buffer zones, to protect aquatic organisms, and;
  • bans the use of pesticides in public places, such as parks and school grounds, or at the very minimum asks for their use to be kept to a minimum.

Subscribe to our newsletters