Health risk from pesticide residues is low, says EFSA

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

Health risk from pesticide residues is low, says EFSA
The health risk from pesticide residues in food is low, according to a report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), with 97% of samples within legal limits - but this is an "upbeat" interpretation which ignores the cocktail effect, critics say.

EFSA publishes this report each year, analysing data submitted by individual countries on pesticide residues on the same basket of goods - aubergines, bananas, broccoli, virgin olive oil, orange juice, peas, sweet peppers, table grapes, wheat, butter and eggs.

The full report, published yesterday but based on data from 2015, can be read here​.

Relevant authorities from all EU member states plus Iceland and Norway submit data, with the Parma-based safety authority then carrying out additional "data-cleaning steps" to ensure the results of all 31 countries are comparable.

EFSA noted these data-cleaning steps “might have an impact on the overall results, such as the maximum residue limits (MRL) compliance rates”.

The reporting countries analysed 84,341 samples for 774 pesticides in total, with almost 70% of these samples (69.3%) coming from EU member states, Iceland and Norway and just over one quarter (25.8%) imported from third countries.

“Food consumed in the European Union continues to be largely free of pesticide residues or to contain residues that fall within legal limits, new figures show. The latest monitoring report reveals that more than 97% of food samples collected across the EU in 2015 were within legal limits, with just over 53% free of quantifiable residues,” ​it said.

EFSA also performed a dietary risk assessment, concluding that for both short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) exposure, risk to consumers was low.

99.3% of organic food free from residues

Maximum residue levels (MRL) are set in the 2005 European legislation (N°396) in order to ensure the correct use of authorised plant protection products and to protect the consumers. According to EU legislation, food or feed which do not comply with the MRL cannot be put on the market.

Broccoli folic acid vegetable
Broccoli had the highest number of MRL exceedances. © iStock

The legal maximum limits for residues were exceeded in 5.6% of the samples from non-EU countries, which represented a decrease from 6.5% in 2014. However, for foods produced within the EU and European Economic Area, there was a slight year-on-year increase from 1.6% to 1.7% of samples.

Broccoli was the worst offender for exceeding MRLs (3.4% of samples), followed by table grapes (1.7%), while "rare exceedances​" were found for olive oil, orange juice and chicken eggs. No exceedance was recorded for butter, the report said.

Organic foods were, on average, 99.3% free from residues or were within legal limits. This was the case for a slightly smaller number (96.5%) of foods intended for children and babies.

An ‘upbeat’ interpretation?

But EFSA’s interpretation of the results was criticised by environmental campaign group Greenpeace for failing to assess the combined effects of pesticides in the human body - especially given that , 341 samples contained 10 or more pesticides.

Head of the NGO’s science unit Dr Paul Johnston said: "In [this] report, EFSA has an overly up-beat interpretation of the data. The fact that so many samples contain more than one pesticide is a cause for concern and an indication that current regulation – based on the control of single pesticides – does not adequately protect people. 

"We are all exposed to a cocktail of pesticides, rather than to single substances, and the toxicology of mixtures remains poorly understood,” ​he added.

EFSA: Cocktail effect is 'high priority'

But a spokesperson for EFSA told FoodNavigator the cumulative risk assessment of pesticides was "high-priority in EFSA’s work-plan",​ and the methodology for assessing this was currently under development.  

"Our scientists have started to develop new approaches for assessing risks to humans and the environment from exposure to multiple chemicals in the food chain: 'chemical mixtures' and their so-called 'cocktail effects'. Achieving this goal will take several years from collecting data, to developing tools and bringing together scientific expertise and regulatory authorities in Europe and beyond." 

Last month it published a report of the public consultation​ on the draft terms of reference, and later in the year will finalise two technical reports illustrating methods for human and ecological risk assessment of chemical mixtures.

Both reports will contribute to the guidance document and the public consultation scheduled to take place in 2018, the spokesperson said.

In the meantime, however, campaigners are calling for greater restrictions on pesticide use. 

Hans Muilerman, chemicals coordinator at the Pesticide Action Network Europe said: "As long as toxic effects of mixtures are not accounted for, an extra safety factor of 10 should be used for food standards. This means of course that far less pesticides should be sprayed on the fields, with far less tank mixtures used by farmers and that food exceeding the standards should be taken from the market."

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