The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published its Annual Report on Pesticide Residues, which provides an overview of pesticide residues in food in the European Union during 2008 and assesses the exposure of European consumers to those residues through their diets. The report shows that 96.5% of the samples analysed comply with the maximum residue levels (MRLs) of pesticides permitted for food products in the EU.
The report says that 3.5% of all analysed samples exceed the legal Maximum Residue Levels.; in 2007, 4.2% of pesticides exceeded the legal MRL limits. In total, more than 70,000 samples of nearly 200 different types of food were analysed for pesticide residues. The monitoring methods used by EU Member States allow for up to 862 different pesticides to be detected.
Residue levels and exposure
More pesticide residues exceeding the MRLs were found in food imported from countries outside the European Union (7.6 %) than in samples originating in the EU (2.4 %). According to the results from the EU coordinated pesticides programme, which was designed to collect comparative data for all Member States, the percentage of samples free of pesticide residues has increased in comparison with previous years. In 2008 no pesticide residues were detected in 62.1 % of the samples tested, whereas in the years 2005 to 2007 52.7 % to 58.0 % of samples did not contain measurable pesticide residues.
Out of 2,062 samples of baby food, 76 contained traces of pesticides and the legal limit was exceeded in only 4 samples (0.2 %). European legislation in this area is very restrictive and allows no more than 0.01 mg/kg of any single pesticide residue.
Concerning organic products, MRLs were exceeded in 0.9% of the samples analysed. EU legislation allows only a very limited number of pesticides to be used in organic food production. There are no specific MRLs for organic products; the same MRLs apply as those for conventional products.
EFSA’s Pesticide Risk Assessment Peer Review (PRAPeR) Unit, which prepared the report, specifies that the presence of pesticides in foods, and in many cases even the exceedance of an MRL, does not necessarily imply a food safety concern. To assess consumer risk, EFSA estimated chronic (long-term) exposure to pesticides from major foods that make up the diet of Europeans and acute (short-term) exposure for nine types of crops which were monitored in 2008 as part of the EU coordinated programme. In both cases, EFSA followed a cautious approach, using conservative assumptions to estimate exposure to pesticides.
For the assessment of long-term exposure, EFSA concluded that none of the evaluated pesticides raised health concerns. For the assessment of the acute exposure, EFSA assumed that people would eat large portions of foods containing the highest recorded residue levels. Under this worst-case scenario, EFSA said that for 35 pesticide/commodity combinations a potential risk could occur but only in rare cases.
In the report, EFSA makes a number of recommendations to improve future pesticide monitoring programmes.
Notes to editors
Maximum Residues Levels (MRLs) are the upper legal levels of a concentration of pesticide residues in or on food or feed; they are based on good agricultural practices and require that authorised pesticides are used at the lowest level needed for effective plant protection. Before an MRL can be set it must undergo a risk assessment in order to ensure consumer safety.
The results presented in this report are not fully comparable with the results in the 2007 report, in particular because of an important change in the EU pesticides legislation in 2008. Since 1 September 2008, MRLs for all active substances used in plant protection products that have the potential to enter the food chain have been harmonised at EU level. Before harmonisation, there was a mixed system in which MRLs for about 250 substances were harmonised across the EU while national MRLs applied for the remaining substances.
EFSA’s Pesticide Risk Assessment Peer Review PRAPeR 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 all intended uses of the substance in food and animal feed. EFSA verifies that exposure levels are safe for all consumer groups and these include more vulnerable groups, such as young children, the elderly and vegetarians.
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 Covering fruit, vegetables and cereals.
 The report covers the 27 EU Member States, Norway and Iceland.
 Food products derived from 20 to 30 crops (fruit, vegetables and cereals) which are major components of the European diet (e.g. wheat, apples, oranges, potatoes, tomatoes). Monitoring the pesticide residues in these food crops provides a representative basis for estimating the exposure to pesticide residues through the diet.
 These crops were: beans without pods, carrots, cucumbers, mandarins, oranges, pears, potatoes, rice and spinach.
 Pesticide/commodity combination means the use of a specific pesticide on a specific commodity such as rice, carrots or pears.