The latest available Europe-wide testing programme of pesticides in food has found that over 97% of samples contained residue levels that fall within permissible limits, said the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The European Union Report on Pesticide Residues in Foods also assessed dietary exposure and concluded the chemical residues on the foods analysed did not pose a long-term risk to consumer health. The evaluation of short-term dietary exposure excluded a risk to consumers from 99.6% of food samples.
The fourth annual report, published today, gives an overview of pesticide residues found in food in 2010 in the 27 EU Member States, as well as Iceland and Norway. As part of this analysis, EFSA tested an innovative approach to dietary exposure known as cumulative risk assessment. In contrast to established techniques that evaluate pesticide residues individually, this approach considers the potential effects of combined exposure to a number of chemicals that have similar toxicological properties.
EFSA Pesticides Unit head Herman Fontier said: “This annual report on pesticide residues makes important recommendations for improved monitoring at national and EU level. It ensures risk managers have the most accurate and relevant information upon which to make decisions.”
The national programmes found that 97.2% of samples contained residues within the European legal limit– known as the maximum residue level (MRL). The lowest MRL exceedance rates were found on foods of animal origin – with 0.1% of samples above permissible limits. MRL exceedance rates of foods imported into the EU, Norway and Iceland were more than five times higher than those of foods originating in these nations - 7.9% compared to 1.5%. MRL values for organic food commodities in the EU are identical to those for non-organic foods. Analysis of 3,571 organic food samples showed an MRL exceedance rate of 0.8%.
The results of the EU-coordinated programme for 2010 showed that 98.4% of samples analysed were compliant with permissible limits. MRL exceedance rates have been broadly stable over the last four years – with the percentage of samples above the legal limits ranging from 2.3% in 2007 to 1.2% in 2009. The 2010 report found the foods with the highest percentage of samples exceeding the MRL were oats (5.3%), lettuce (3.4%), strawberries (2.8%) and peaches (1.8%).
Based on the findings of the 2010 monitoring programmes, EFSA concluded there was no long-term risk to consumer health from the pesticide residues through their diets. In assessing short-term acute exposure, the report found that a risk could not be excluded for 0.4% of samples – or 79 out of a total of 18,243. This conclusion is based on a worst-case scenario that assumed consumption of the largest portion of a food type that contains the highest residue measured of each pesticide.
In addition to the established dietary exposure evaluation, EFSA performed for the first time a cumulative risk assessment as part of the 2010 report. The main aim of the pilot programme was to assess the need for improvements in the way Member States report monitoring data. EFSA highlighted the value of this trial cumulative risk assessment in paving the way for the better use of the approach in future reports. But it also recognised the need for additional data collection by national authorities and modifications to the methodology in order to reduce the significant uncertainties found in the results.
Mr Fontier said: “Cumulative risk assessment relies on a refined analysis and understanding of the possible types of combined toxicity of chemicals in food. It requires sophisticated methodologies capable of handling and combining huge amounts of data. This is why the pilot cumulative risk assessment presented in the latest report focuses on methodology rather than results, which are inconclusive as they contain a high degree of uncertainty.”
EFSA has been working intensively on the development of these methodologies and on data collection over the last five years. This undertaking, which is also central to the Authority’s work on chemical mixtures in foods, is ongoing and will result in a wider coverage of the combined effects of pesticides residues in future reports.
The 2010 report recommends a series of measures to further improve future monitoring programmes and the enforcement of pesticide residue legislation in Europe.
EFSA’s current work on developing cumulative risk methodology is focussing on identifying pesticides to be included in common assessment groups based on their toxicological profile. The Authority is due to publish a scientific opinion on its work in this area in spring 2013. The goal of cumulative risk assessment is to characterise the potential for a cumulative toxic effect from pesticides and the extent of the effect following exposure to multiple substances that cause such an effect.
 Each reporting country carries out two control programmes: a national programme (designed by each country) and an EU-coordinated programme requiring all national bodies to carry out identical control activities. For both programmes in 2010, a total of 77,075 samples of more than 500 different types of food were tested for the presence of 982 pesticides. Many of these pesticides are not approved for use in the EU.
 Organic food is produced by a method of farming that does not use conventional methods to fertilise crops, control weeds or prevent livestock disease. Under EU legislation organic production entails significant restrictions on the use of pesticides. It emphasises the use of natural resources over artificial inputs and is supported by strict regulations and inspections in and outside the EU.
 Each year, the EU-coordinated programme analyses a different cross-section of crops and products of animal origin, considered to be the major components of the European diet over a three-year period. In 2010 the 12 selected products were apples, head cabbage, leek, lettuce, milk, peaches, pears, rye, oats, strawberries, swine meat and tomatoes. The current EU-coordinated programme tested 12,168 food samples for the presence of 178 pesticides.