21 November 2018

Pesticide Residues Meet High Safety Standards

Dr. Wibke Meyer

Manager of Regulatory Affairs
Crop Protection
CropLife International

Part of the enjoyment of eating food is knowing that it’s safe. Governments and farmers around the world help ensure the safety of food crops. This includes regulating pesticides and ensuring their responsible use. Traces of pesticides that can remain on food crops at harvest time are called residues. They are strictly regulated.

Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) are a trading standard and a measure of the highest level of a pesticide residue that is legally tolerated in or on food or feed when pesticides are applied correctly. MRLs are set well below safety margins to ascertain foods produced with pesticides are suitable for consumption. MRLs ensure that consumers can trust the safety and quality of the foods they buy. Pesticide residues, if they occur, are so low that people would have to consume amounts humanly impossible to be affected.

Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) are set well below safety margins to ascertain foods produced with pesticides are suitable for consumption.

Governments around the world monitor pesticide residues by testing samples. For example, the European Food Safety Authority publishes a monitoring report on residues every year. It shows that in the European Union, about half of all samples are free of detectable residue traces. In the remaining half (45%), residues found were within the legal limits (MRLs). Only about 2 percent of items tested exceeded these limits, which still do not pose a safety issue due to their trace amounts and huge safety margins.

Pesticides are applied at all growth stages of crops to protect them against pests. Farmers follow good agricultural practices to ensure that potential residues are below MRLs. It is essential for farmers to comply with MRL requirements in order to sell their crops locally and for export. Moreover, Integrated Pest Management – a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture that includes the responsible use of pesticides – supports minimizing residues.

MRLs as Trading Standards

MRLs, based on residue trials set by regulators, verify if farmers have used pesticides correctly. Demonstrated consumer safety is an indispensable pre-condition for granting MRLs. Traders and importers can trust that the foods they order fulfill safety and quality requirements, thus ensuring trade and marketability of produce. If an MRL is exceeded, it is against the law so the produce cannot be sold and will be destroyed.

There are many different systems for setting MRLs around world, such as in the United States and EU, as well as provided by Codex Alimentarius internationally. In each market, an MRL is set routinely before a pesticide product is registered but not automatically in import markets. If a product is not registered in an import market, the manufacturer must ask regulators of the importing market to set an import tolerance, which ideally should be the MRL in the exporting market.

MRLs are the cornerstone to trade. A crop is not legally tradeable if it exceeds MRLs.

Until recently, food was mainly produced, sold and consumed locally. Over the last century, the amount of food traded internationally has grown exponentially. MRLs are the cornerstone to trade. A crop is not legally tradeable if it exceeds MRLs. There are no globally harmonized MRLs and this can be  a challenge because farmers must comply with MRLs in both exporting and various importing countries. For example, if South African grapes are sent to the European Union, they must comply with both South African and European MRLs. Thus, farmers need to be well informed about MRL requirements of all their markets. They must verify if following label instructions locally will meet an importing country’s residue requirements.

Exporters are typically aware of MRLs around the world as they do not take the risk of their exports not meeting import tolerances because products can be rejected at the border. Pesticide manufacturers, grower organizations and traders advise farmers and monitor closely any changes in MRLs globally.

Assurance of Safety

Consumers need not be concerned about pesticide residues as there is a huge gap between perception and reality. Even if the legal maximum limit for residues is exceeded, it is very unlikely a risk because of the huge safety margins. For example, a person would have to eat 28,000 strawberries in a single day to come close to exceeding the safety limit for this fruit.

Crop safety begins with the crop protection industry, which test products extensively and only submits for their registration when tests and risk assessments meet strict regulatory and safety requirements. Authorities then run independent assessments and concur or not. Monitoring is ongoing in the food chain from traders to supermarkets. Hundreds of thousands of samples worldwide are analyzed for residues year after year.

Even if the legal maximum limit for residues is exceeded, it is very unlikely a risk because of the huge safety margins. For example, a person would have to eat 28,000 strawberries in a single day to come close to exceeding the safety limit for this fruit.

Most residues are on the skins of fruits and vegetables, therefore, peeling largely removes them. Consumers can also take precaution by removing the outer leaves of heads of lettuce and washing unpeeled produce under running water, gently scrubbing and then drying it. Ultimately, consumers should use good handling practices rather than paying attention to “watch lists” regarding pesticide residues on healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Wibke Meyer is manager of regulatory affairs, Crop Protection, at CropLife International in Brussels, Belgium.

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