The European Food Safety Authority has published its third Annual Report on Pesticide Residues, which gives an overview of pesticide residues found in food in the European Union during 2009 and assesses the exposure of consumers to those residues through their diets. The report shows that compliance rates continue to rise, with 97.4% of the samples analysed falling within the permitted Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs), a rise of about one percentage point since 2008.
In the EU coordinated part of the monitoring programme, which is designed to collect directly comparable data from reporting countries and to enable dietary exposure assessment, 61.4% of samples were free of measurable pesticide residues. Compared with 2006, the last time the same food commodities of plant origin were analysed under the EU-coordinated programme, the MRL exceedance rate has fallen from 4.4% to 1.2%. EFSA said this could be partially ascribed to the harmonisation of MRLs, which came into force in September 2008, but other factors – such as the more effective use of legislation compelling producers and other industry players to implement safety systems, and changes in the pattern of pesticide use in Europe – may have contributed to the improvement.
EFSA’s Pesticides Unit, which prepared the report, emphasised that the presence of pesticides in food at a level exceeding the MRLs does not necessarily imply a safety concern.
Reporting countries, which include all EU Member States, but also Iceland and Norway, analysed nearly 68,000 samples of food commodities for 834 pesticides. The number of food commodities analysed rose from just under 200 in 2008 to approximately 300 in 2009.
The introduction of a new data reporting format enabled a more accurate assessment of the long-term risks to consumers from exposure to pesticide residues. EFSA concluded that based on current knowledge long-term exposure to residues detected in major foods that make up the European diet would not raise health concerns.
The assessment of short-term acute exposure was based on worst-case scenarios – assuming the consumption of large portions of a food item containing the highest recorded residue – and EFSA concluded that risks to consumers were unlikely. Of the 10,553 samples taken in the EU coordinated programme, a potential risk could not be ruled out for 77.
MRLs were more often breached in samples from countries outside the European Economic Area (6.9% of samples) than in those from the EU and EFTA countries (1.5% of samples).
The lowest exceedance rates overall were for food products of animal origin (0.3%).
No specific MRLs have been established for organically produced commodities so those used for conventionally produced commodities are applied. The MRL exceedance rate recorded for organic produce was lower by a factor of 7 compared to conventionally grown produce.
In the report, EFSA makes a number of recommendations aimed at improving future monitoring programmes and the enforcement of European legislation on pesticide residues.
Maximum Residues Levels (MRLs) are the upper levels of a concentration of pesticide residues legally permitted in or on food or feed. Before an MRL can be set a risk assessment must be carried out to ensure consumer safety. Before September 2008 a mixed system of harmonised EU MRLs and national MRLs was in place. After this date harmonised MRLs became applicable for all active substances used in plant protection products that have the potential to enter the food chain. The harmonisation has simplified the MRL system in Europe.
EFSA’s Pesticide Unit is responsible for assessing MRLs for pesticides through a comprehensive evaluation of consumer exposure and of any potential health effects which may result from use of the substance in food and animal feed. EFSA verifies that exposure levels are safe for all EU consumers, including vulnerable groups such as young children, the elderly and vegetarians.
*This press release was updated on 16 November 2011. In the original version the MRL exceedance rate for the overall results of the 2009 EU-coordinated programme was wrongly reported as 1.4%. This has been corrected to 1.2%
 Each reporting country carries out two control programmes: a national programme (designed by each country) and an EU-coordinated programme, which specifies the control activities to be carried out.
 The EU-coordinated programme analyses 20 to 30 crops (fruit, vegetables, cereals and products of animal origin), considered to be the major components of the European diet, over a three-year period. In 2009 the selected products were aubergines, bananas, butter, cauliflower, egg, orange juice, peas, peppers, table grapes and wheat. The number of pesticides analysed in samples of plant origin has increased from 55 in 2006 to 120 in 2009.