September 4, 2008

New Rules on Pesticide Residues


The European Commission this week made an important step forward in its efforts to ensure food safety in the European Union: a regulation revising and simplifying the rules pertaining to pesticide residues entered into force.

The new rules set unified maximum residue levels (MRLs) for pesticides. They are supposed to ensure food safety for all consumers and allow traders and importers to do business smoothly; confusion over dealing with 27 lists of national MRLs is eliminated.

With the previous regime, different MRLs could apply to the same pesticide for the same crop in different Member States, a situation that gave rise to questions from consumers, farmers and traders. Regulation (EC) No 396/2005 is the result of a considerable joint effort by the European Commission, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Member States.

Pest infestation and disease

The yield of agricultural and horticultural crops can be severely reduced by pest infestation and disease. To protect crops before and after harvest, plant-protection products are used. In some cases, these products act by confusing insects or making crops less palatable for pests. But more commonly, the damaging insects, weeds and fungi are killed by chemicals. Such pesticides could have severe undesirable effects if they are not strictly regulated.

Consumers are exposed to pesticides because small quantities remain in harvested crops as residues. The amounts of residues found in food must be safe for consumers and must be as low as possible, by corresponding to the lowest amount of pesticide used on the crop to achieve the desired effect. A maximum residue level is the highest possible level of a pesticide residue that is legally tolerated in food and feed.

The new regulation covers approximately 1,100 pesticides currently or formerly used in agriculture in or outside the EU. It lists MRLs for 315 agricultural products. These MRLs also apply to processed products, adjusted to take account of dilution or concentration during processing.

Divergent national rules

The previous MRLs regime was believed to be too complex; it combined EU and divergent national rules. This situation led to confusion about which MRL was applicable. It made the life of traders and importers difficult and gave rise to questions from consumers, particularly in cases where food exceeding the defined MRL in one Member State was acceptable in other Member States.

The rules applicable before September 1, 2008, were complex. For some pesticides, the Commission would set MRLs, for others, Member States were responsible. For some pesticides, the Commission could set MRLs, but the Member States could fix higher MRLs. And for some pesticides, no MRLs were set at all.

For traders and importers, having to deal with 27 lists of national MRLs led to confusion about which MRL they had to respect. For consumers, the confusion led to concerns about the safety of pesticide residues, in particular in cases where food exceeding the MRL in one Member State would be acceptable in other Member States.

Starting this week, a database can be consulted on the European Commission's Web site to search for the MRL applicable to each crop and pesticide. This newly developed database is free and is easily accessible by every citizen, with a view to guarantee transparent and up-to-date information on the EU pesticide residues legislation.

The new regulation covers all agricultural products intended for food or animal feed. MRLs for 315 fresh products are listed, but these MRLs also apply to the same products after processing, adjusted to take account of dilution or concentration during the process. The regulation covers pesticides currently or formerly used in agriculture in or outside the EU (about 1,100). Where a pesticide is not specifically mentioned, a general default MRL of 0.01 mg./kg. applies.

Safety assessment

for consumers

The safety assessment for consumers is undertaken by the European Food Safety Authority, based on the toxicity of the pesticide, the maximum levels expected on food and the different diets of European consumers. To ensure that MRLs are as low as possible, applicants seeking approval of a pesticide must submit scientific information about the minimum amounts of pesticide necessary to protect a crop and the residue level remaining on the crop after such treatment.

The European Food Safety Authority then verifies that this residue is safe for all European consumer groups, including vulnerable groups such as babies, children and vegetarians. When there is a risk established for any consumer group, the MRL application will be rejected and the pesticide may not be used on that crop.

In many cases, the amount of pesticide needed is much lower than the highest level that is still considered safe. In such cases the MRL is set at the lower level, thus ensuring that only the necessary (minimum) amount of pesticide is used. How and when the pesticide may be used is defined by the relevant national authority and can be found on the label of the pesticide.

Authorizations are granted on a national basis because the local and environmental conditions and the occurrence of pests (and therefore uses of pesticides) may differ. For example, in the southern Member States where it is warmer, there are more insects and thus more insecticides are needed. In other parts of the EU, it is more humid - conditions that suit fungal infestation, and thus more fungicides are needed. When MRLs are set, these differences should be taken into account.

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Originally published by ARI SYRQUIN.

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