Processors pushed to reduce pesticide residues in foods

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Pesticide residues Cereal Wheat

Processors need to put more pressure on growers to reduce pesticide
levels in their cereal crops, according to a guidance document from
the UK's food safety regulator.

In the main, the Food Standards Agency calls on processors to demand more pesticide-free supplies from cereal growers. The recommendation is part of a guidance document on pesticide reduction in cereals published yesterday by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The FSA also published four other similar guides covering apples, pears, potatoes and tomatoes. The documents aim to push growers, processors and retailers towards reducing pesticide residue levels in such crops even more.

The guides are part of the agency's programme to reduce the levels of chemical residues in unprocessed and processed foods, a bid by the FSA to address consumer demands for pesticide residues in food to be driven down below the current safe levels. The guides were drafted by consultancy group ADAS, in concert with key industry stakeholders, and have been revised following a public consultation.

"These crops were not selected because of any food safety concerns,"​ the FSA stated. "They include food staples and present examples of particular challenges for residue reduction, and where industry has made progress."

ADAS noted that despite processors' efforts farmers’ awareness of pesticide residues in cereals is not high.

"Part of the reason for this must be because grain buyers seldom request grain without any pesticide residues,"​ the cereal guidance stated. "Action to increase awareness of residues, in conjunction with management practices that reduce them, will be a significant first step towards minimising pesticide residues in cereal products. There is significant scope to reduce residues without reducing productivity through this mechanism."

However any reduction in pesticides must be done with care in order to minimise the risk of contaminating food products with mycotoxins from the growth of moulds, ADAS stated.

The percentage of grain samples containing storage chemical residues decreased from 25 per cent in 1997 to 10 per cent in 2004. A proportion of this decrease in residues has probably resulted from a switch to aluminium phosphide, possibly as a result of pressure from processors and management advice, stated ADAS .

Further research and development is required to further reduce residues towards negligible amounts through the production of new resistant crop varieties, improved predictions schemes and the development of new control methods, the consultancy stated.

In the main the report identifies the key pesticide residues for cereals, based on their frequency of occurrence in surveys, are chlormequat, mepiquat, glyphosate and grain storage pesticides.

Food industry samples of grain between 1994 and 1997 indicated that the storage pesticides were the most commonly found residues, with chlormequat and glyphosate now occurring more frequently.

Surveillance from 1996 to 2003 by an unnamed breakfast cereal manufacturer found that less than one per cent of finished products contained pesticide residues. Samples are now being tested for chlormequat and glyphosate by external laboratories, and chlormequat is now being found routinely, ADAS reported. None of the residues found have exceeded the regulatory maximum safe levels.

In the malting industry, routine pesticide residue tests are also carried out on barley crops at intake, during storage and prior to steep at the start of the malting process. Samples are drawn from tonnages averaging over one million tonnes per year. The percentage of samples with no residues detected reached a peak of 89.3 per cent in 1999. The percentage for 2002, on a lower crop tonnage was 68.6 per cent.

The main residues detected were storage insecticides such as pirimiphos-methyl. More recently residues of chlormequat and glyphosate and its metabolite, aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA) have been detected, ADAS noted.

The consultancy noted that a number of economic factors and industry efforts are working to push down pesticide residue levels, although this seems to have not worked in the malting sector.

Low profit margins obtained by cereal producers in recent years have resulted in considerable efforts being made to reduce the cost of crop inputs, including pesticides. The reduction has been achieved by minimising pest, disease and weed pressure through careful selection of rotation, varietal choice, sowing date, nutrition and other management techniques.

Cereal producers have also applied the principles of ‘due diligence’ to ensure the application of pesticides only where potential crop losses make it cost effective. As a result, current pesticide application rates tend to be lower than the recommended amount, with growers aiming to use the minimum that is appropriate for cost-effective use, ADAS stated.

In addition all home grown wheat used for human consumption, and all malting barley, is grown by producers who belong to assurance schemes registered with Assured Food Standards (AFS). About 2,000 growers and more than two million ha of cereal production across England and Wales are registered under the scheme.

About 80 per cent of the UK crop of cereals, oilseeds and pulses are grown under this scheme. The scheme requires members to employ a crop protection programme strategy to avoid unnecessary chemical use. The standards relating to crop storage require producers to employ a specific storage strategy, involving measuring moisture and temperature regularly, which then reduces the need to use post harvest chemicals.

In addition, the UK's Home-Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA) has direct contact with cereal growers, processors and manufacturers, has also funded research and technology transfer activities to directly minimise residues of chlormequat and monitors residue levels of chlormequat and other pesticides.

"Whilst not directly aimed at reducing pesticide residues, these initiatives are expected to reduce residues,"​ ADAS stated.

The National Association of British and Irish Millers (NABIM) are also working to reduce residues through the purchase of cereal grain only from farmers who have adopted best practice in growing their wheat, and whose practices are independently audited by a third party.

NABIM members also check every delivery of wheat for any food safety hazards and reject any that is not fit. They also apply HACCP (hazard analysis, critical control points) systems through the milling process including monitoring residues of pesticides and other possible agricultural contaminants.

Meanwhile the Maltsters’ Association of Great Britain (MAGB) restricts the use of pesticides on grain for malting to a narrow range of pesticides. This is to ensure the malting process is not affected by residues. Only those pesticides listed on theBritish Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) approved hemicals list are permitted.

To ensure that the standards are met, every load of grain supplied to a UK maltings has to carry its own ‘pesticide passport’ to declare if pesticide has been used at any stage on the grain post-harvest. Spot loads are also tested at intake, to ensure that the passport information is correct and that minimum safe levels are not exceeded.

The British Oat and Barley Millers Association (BOBMA) is also working to reduce the use of chlormequat, to meet the requirements of oat processors and export markets.

In the UK, cereals are grown on 3.20 million hectares (ha) of the 4.76 million ha of arable land. Wheat, barley and oats make up over 99 per cent of the UK's cereal production.

In the 2002 to 2003 growing year, 34 per cent of wheat, 31 per cent of barley and 36 per cent of oats produced in the UK were used for human consumption.

UK-produced wheats are often mixed with imported wheat to achieve the necessary specifications for bread-making. Food and drink products from cereals include bread, biscuits, cakes and pasta, breakfast cereals, and starch. Some wheat is used for beer and whisky production.

Barley grain is malted for beer and whisky production, while oats are used primarily for breakfast cereals and as flour and grain for baking.

In 2003, the value of cereals produced in the UK was £1,531m for wheat, £650m for winter and spring barley and £79m for oats. Up to 21 per cent of production was exported.

Imports represented about 1 per cent of UK production for barley and oats. The value of the imported cereals in 2003 was £95m for wheat, £5m for barley and £0.8m for oats.

About two per cent of foods sampled in the UK during the first quarter of 2006 contained pesticide residues above the maximum permitted levels.

The findings by the UK's environmental department's Pesticide Residues Committee indicates that despite regulatory action, the level remains stubbornly stable. The same percentage figure was obtained in the fourth quarter of 2005, indicating that processors have to do more when checking their supplies.

The latest quarterly report found that 61.7 per cent of the 366 samples of seven different foods tested had no detectable residues, and 36.4 per cent contained levels below the maximum residues level (MRL) - the legally permitted level. Seven of the samples, or 1.9 per cent, contained residues above the MRL.

Illegal MRLs were found in one sample of grapes imported from outside the EU, four samples of lettuce, and two speciality fruits.

Related topics Food safety & quality

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