UK supermarkets found selling pesticide-tainted fruit and veg

The UK Government has welcomed a report showing that only 1.3% of food tested for pesticides are above Maximum Residue Limits (MRL), but environmental groups say that the UK doesn't test enough food and that its tests underestimate pesticide levels by as much as 20%.

The annual report of the Working Party on Pesticide Residues (WPPR) has shown that of 2,187 food samples tested in 1998, 73% had no detectable residues, while 26% contained residues below the MRL. Only 1.3% of samples, including pears, were found to have levels exceeding MRLs. All major UK supermarket chains sold food that tested positive for pesticide residues in 1998.

But two environmental organisations, Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming and The Pesticides Trust, disagree with the Government’s positive spin on the issue. Sustain has used EU data regarding member states’ pesticide testing programmes to show that the UK tests fewer food samples and tests them for fewer pesticides than any other EU country. “It comes down to cash,” Jeanette Longfield co-ordinator at Sustain, told edie. “Extra cash doesn’t seem likely, but there is a strong case for it.”

With the Netherlands testing 1,200 samples of lettuce in 1996 and the UK only 113, the quality of the UK’s monitoring programme does appear low. In the case of winter lettuce, the WPPR tested only 28 samples, down from 70 in 1995. With 28 samples, Sustain questions whether the Government really can have a clear idea of general pesticide levels in winter lettuce. Using the 28 samples, the Government has admitted that “nearly half of these lettuces were found to contain residues which either exceeded the MRL or contained a non-approved pesticide”

Of equal concern is the Pesticide Safety Directorate’s (PSD) – the body for which WPPR tests are undertaken – monitoring of testing accuracy. In 1998, the PSD spiked four different food types – apples, lettuces, oranges and tomatoes – with more than 100 pesticide residues and sent them to three laboratories. All three labs returned results that underestimated residue levels by 20% or more.

“It’s been discovered that things happens in food that nobody has yet taken on board for testing,” Peter Beaumont of The Pesticides Trust told edie. “There is the question of whether the process of analysis is destroying the residues that are there. It started with one or two pesticides that were difficult to test. People knew they were there but would test and couldn’t find them.”

Beaumont is hopeful that testing sensitivity and accuracy will improve in time. “One of the things that’s been promised is a fuller paper on the analytical issues within the next six months,” says Beaumont. The WPPR has also undertaken to report more frequently, ideally on a quarterly basis.

Although both environmental groups are calling for more funding for WPPR and for improvements in testing accuracy, Beaumont believes that the fundamental issue is a dependence on intensive farming: “Until farmers are able to farm with fewer pesticides, we will have something like the current level of 30% of our food showing residues. Even farmers using pesticides properly cannot help but grow produce containing quite high pesticide residues from time to time.”

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