Campaigners launch fresh attack on pesticide mixtures in EU food

Europeans consume dozens of pesticides a day ©iStock

Europeans are consuming dozens of pesticides on a daily basis, say the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), which today marked 12 years of "inaction and failure" in the EU’s attempts to reduce pesticide levels in food.

The EU is failing to protect the public from harm, say PAN, by continually disregarding the cumulative effects of multiple chemicals in food. 

A new press release, marking a dozen years since the passing of regulations which sought to control the effects of blends of pesticides, entitled ‘Shame on you EFSA’ accused authorities of bias under the influence of the food industry.

Hans Muilerman, the chemicals officer for PAN, told FoodNavigator: “In 2005 it was finally decided that the combined effects of pesticides in foods should be taken into account, rather than just one at a time, but people still eat dozens of pesticides every day and 28% of fruit and vegetables still contain more than one pesticide. In a punnet of strawberries, you might well eat 10 or 15 different pesticides at one time.”

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was charged in 2005 with ensuring public safety from mixed pesticides. PAN accused it of being ‘totally unscientific and unrealistic’ and said that its efforts had been skewed by industry influence.

Martin Dermine, a project coordinator at PAN, stated that “Regulators have great trust in industry experts who aim to deny science and stick to 50-year old ways of risk assessment to make sure that unsafe standards remain in place. Toxic synergies between pesticides have been clearly demonstrated. This major public health issue is apparently not a priority for EFSA”.

EFSA hit back at the accusations however, a spokesperson told us:

“The allegations made by PAN Europe are inaccurate and unsubstantiated. They do a disservice to the large amount of work carried out by EFSA and its scientific partners in member states to protect consumers from the risks associated with cumulative exposure to pesticides.”

EFSA also denied allegations that pesticide mixes were not a priority, saying:

“As we speak, consumer assessments are being carried out on groups of pesticides that may affect the thyroid and nervous systems, with two reports due for publication this year. This builds on recent work carried out by EFSA’s experts to develop a methodology – the first of its kind in a regulatory setting – to classify pesticides into cumulative assessment groups. The science behind cumulative risk assessment is complex and challenging and it is a shame that PAN Europe prefers to criticise EFSA from a distance rather than to engage constructively with us on this issue.”

The Crop Protection Association (CPA), a research and innovation group specialising in the role of crop protection in the food chain, concurred with EFSA on the criticisms. Adam Speed, communications manager at CPA, said: 

“Food in Europe is safe to eat, and it is disappointing to see pressure groups misrepresenting the science to concern the public. Where pesticide residues do occur, scientists and health experts overwhelmingly agree that the mere presence of residues in food does not mean they are harmful. The positive effects of eating fresh fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy, balanced diet are well proven and far outweigh any concern about pesticide residues.

“Consumers can be reassured that pesticides are one of the most heavily regulated products in Europe – it currently takes over 11 years and costs €200m to bring an active ingredient to market - and are subject to consistent regulatory scrutiny to ensure that consumer exposure is kept well below safety limits. Pesticides play an essential role in helping our farmers to produce safe affordable food that is free from pests and disease.”

Organic 

In 2014 EFSA released data showing that 98.8% of organic products contained no traces of pesticides, or levels only up to the legal limit. 

The organic food industry has continued to grow, reaching a value of €26bn in Europe last year, up €14bn in ten years.

Whatever the rights and wrongs are in the dispute over pesticide reduction and food safety, the organic market is likely to continue benefiting. 

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