European pesticides residues still a “cause for concern”

The upward trend in the amount of European fruit and vegetables containing “excessive” levels of pesticide residues, and more than one pesticide residue, continued in 2000, according to the latest figures from the European Commission’s food and veterinary office.

Some 4.5% of fresh food contained residues above the European maximum residue limits (MRL) compared with 3% in 1996. Those containing more than one pesticide residue increased from 14% in 1999 to 15% in 2000, and in particular the number of samples with four or more residues was higher than the years before – 2.8% compared with 2-2.3% in 1997-1999.

The percentage of food containing no pesticide residues dropped back slightly to 61%, compared to established levels of between 60%-61% for previous years, following last year’s boost to 64%. For the first time, the figures included processed food on a limited scale – only 4% of the total sample, and they returned significantly lower levels of residues compared with fresh foods. For instance, the MRL was exceeded in only 0.7% of samples and 74% had no residues.

Fungicides and insecticides continue to be the most commonly detected type of residues.

In an associated survey of rice, cucumbers, head cabbage and peas, it was revealed that residues of more than one pesticide were present in 15% of the samples analysed. Head cabbage and peas were considered “the most problematic” – where residues were detected and MRLs exceeded most often.

The figures are a “cause for concern”, stated the Commission, “indicating there is room for improvement with regard to the pesticides residues situation in fresh foodstuffs, in particular the number of violations of the statutory limits and the findings of multiple residues”. However, the Commission emphasised that even the foods which exceeded MRLs “would not cause harm if eaten”. It cautioned against direct comparisons with earlier years as analytical methods have become increasingly sensitive, and more types of residues are being detected. Also, MRLs have been lowered since the monitoring programme began.

The Commission stated that the increased number of detected residues and identified MRL violations show that competent authorities are aware of the problems and have taken enforcement measures to overcome the situation. In most countries sampling has been targeted to specific problems, identified by previous monitoring programmes and by improved communication between Member states.

Ahead of the long-awaited green paper on pesticide use by the European Commission, proposals for a directive reducing pesticide use have been released by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and Pesticides Action Network Europe (PAN Europe). Their main target is to attain a 50% reduction in the frequency of applications of pesticides at national level within 10 years, and speed up the introduction of pesticide use restrictions. The groups said that the proposed directive is based “on the prevention and precautionary principles, plus the ‘None unless… principle’, meaning that no pesticides shall be used in the growing of crops or in other pest control applications unless it is determined that no other method, practice or system of control is available to prevent unreasonable pest damage”.

The European Parliament is currently considering the Commission Report on the implementation of Directive 91/414/EEC, concerning plant production products (Pesticide Registration Directive). PAN Europe said the Rapporteur, Paul Lannoye (MEP, Belgium), has pointed out that this directive does not address pesticide dependency or the effects of using multiple pesticides, and therefore Community legislation is needed urgently.

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