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.
1. What is the 2010 EU Report on Pesticide Residues in Food?
This report presents the results of the Europe-wide monitoring programmes on pesticide residues on food commodities sampled during the calendar year 2010. These are carried out to ensure pesticide residues on foods comply with levels set by EU legislation. EFSA also assesses consumer exposure through diets to pesticide residues and performs an analysis of the chronic (long-term) and acute (short-term) risks. Each reporting country carries out two control programmes: a national programme (designed by individual countries) and an EU-coordinated multiannual programme requiring all national bodies to carry out identical control activities. In addition, the report contains the outcome of a pilot cumulative risk assessment of pesticide residues.
2. Which countries contributed to the report?
In total 29 countries submitted data for the Annual report: 27 Member States of the European Union plus Iceland and Norway.
3. What are pesticide residues in food?
Pesticide residues are the measurable amounts of the active substances - chemicals used to protect plants against disease and pests – that can be found on harvested crops or in foods of animal origin.
4. What is a Maximum Residue Level (MRL)?
Maximum Residues Levels (MRLs) are the upper levels of a concentration of pesticide residues legally permitted in or on food or feed. In the European legal framework, before an MRL is set a risk assessment must be carried out to ensure consumer safety.
5. Are MRLs equivalent to toxicological safety levels?
No, MRLs are not toxicological safety limits as such. They are set to reflect the minimum level of a pesticide that can be used to achieve effective plant protection: i.e. to keep crops healthy and prevent them from being destroyed as a consequence of disease and infestation. MRLs are often set at levels far below toxicological limits. Furthermore, the presence of pesticides in food at a level exceeding the MRL does not necessarily imply a safety concern.
6. What is EFSA’s role in setting MRLs?
EFSA’s Pesticides Unit is responsible for assessing residues resulting from pesticide use through a comprehensive evaluation of consumer exposure. EFSA verifies that exposure levels are safe for all EU consumers. Following EFSA’s assessment, the European Commission - in its risk manager role – sets, amends or removes MRLs.
7. What were the report’s findings on MRL compliance rates for 2010?
The EU-coordinated programme found that 98.4% of samples tested contained pesticide residues that fell within permitted MRLs.
The results of the analysis of the national programmes found that 97.2% of food samples contained pesticide residues that were within the legal limits.
8. What were the findings of the report regarding foods of animal origin?
The 2010 report found that 0.1% of the 5,261 samples of food of animal origin contained pesticide residues that exceeded the MRL - the lowest proportion of any food group. Over 87% of foods of animal origin contained no detectable levels of pesticide residues.
9. Why were pesticide residues found in foods of animal origin?
There are two main factors that cause the presence of pesticide residues in foods of animal origin, albeit at very low levels. One is from pesticide residues present on crops that are used in animal feed. Once consumed, traces of these chemicals can remain in the bodies of animals. A second source is from residues of chemicals that have remained in the environment long after being applied to crops. Many of these substances were banned up to 30 years ago due to their classification as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Therefore these chemicals can still be present in food, particularly in the fatty tissues of animals.
10. Why are pesticides found on organic foods?
Within the European legal framework, a very limited number of pesticides can be used in organic food production: e.g. pesticides derived from plants. Pesticide residues on organic food may also be a result of environmental pollution from persistent pesticides used in the past but that are no longer authorised in the EU.
11. What is dietary exposure and risk assessment?
Dietary exposure estimates the quantity of pesticides that people ingest through their diets. Two types of exposure assessment are performed: the short-term assessment which focuses on the amount of a substance that is ingested over a short period of time, usually as part of a single meal or during one day, and the long-term exposure assessment which estimates the intake of a given substance over a long period to assess possible risks which may occur as a consequence of lifetime exposure.
The estimated (short-term and long-term) dietary exposures are then compared with the relevant toxicological reference values – the scientifically calculated amounts that can be ingested daily without a significant risk to health. Consumer exposure is only of concern if the estimated dietary exposure to a pesticide exceeds one of these amounts.
12. What were the report’s findings on the dietary exposure assessment?
The dietary exposure assessment was performed considering the 178 pesticides covered by the 2010 EU-coordinated control programme. The long-term exposure assessment, which was performed for each substance individually, found no risk to consumer health. This appraisal examined pesticide residues on 28 of the most prominent foods in the human diet. The short-term assessment – also carried out for each substance individually - examined the 12 foodstuffs in the EU-coordinated programme and found that in a worst-case scenario a risk could not be ruled out for 79 of the 18,243 samples.
13. What is dietary cumulative risk assessment?
In addition to the established approaches of assessing pesticide residues individually, EFSA has used for the first time a methodology known as cumulative risk assessment. This is a technique that considers the potential effects from combined exposure to pesticides that share similar toxicological properties. Cumulative effects will only occur when pesticides that share similar toxicological characteristics are present together on food.
14. Has this methodology on the cumulative risk assessment been fully developed?
No, this work is ongoing. EFSA has been working intensively on collecting the necessary data and developing the appropriate methodologies over the last five years. The current focus of EFSA’s work is grouping together those pesticides whose toxicological effects will combine. The Authority’s scientific opinion on cataloguing so-called common assessment groups (CAGs) is due to be published in spring 2013.
15. Why did EFSA employ cumulative risk assessment if the methodology is still under development?
The approach was trialled in the 2010 report to determine whether adjustments are needed in the way monitoring data is reported to EFSA, e.g. if the level of detail of the data was sufficient. This pilot project will help with the practical implementation of this methodology for future pesticide residue reports. However, it is only a first step and more work will need to be carried out by scientific experts from EFSA and the Member States to refine the methodology and the data that is collected.
16. What did EFSA recommend?
The 2010 report recommends a series of measures to further improve future monitoring programmes and the enforcement of pesticide residue legislation in Europe. In particular, some recommendations are aimed at increasing the accuracy of the analytical results, the quality and the level of detail of the data and information attached to each single control result reported to EFSA.
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.