Maintaining High Standards on Pesticide Residues


It’s a pleasure to eat good food, but we need to know that our food is safe. Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) provide a measurable trading standard that help ensure food produced with crop protection products is suitable for consumption. Dr. Monika Roth, senior global product stewardship manager for BASF and head of the European Crop Protection Association’s (ECPA’s) residue management project, tells us more.

What are pesticide residues?

They are measurable traces of crop protection products on harvested food crops like apples, lettuce and corn. These residues are very, very low if present at all. A typical residue could correspond to one kernel of maize in three tons of wheat or one aspirin tablet in an Olympic swimming pool.

To what extent do pesticide residues exist?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) publishes a monitoring report on residues every year. It shows that in the European Union (EU), about half of all samples are free of detectable residue traces. In the remaining half (45%), residues found were within the legal limits (maximum residue
levels or MRLs). Only about 2 percent of items tested exceed these limits, which still do not pose a safety issue.

How and why do pesticide residues occur?

Pests that attack close to harvest can lead to spraying and, therefore, residues. Another cause is the misuse of products, like not paying attention to label instructions. But if farmers follow instructions, resulting crops should not exceed MRLs established in their country of use.

How can pesticide residues be minimized?

The farmer is number one in minimizing residues with good agricultural practices. Moreover, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) supports the reduction of residues. The ECPA is looking to further improve the already good situation in Europe via IPM in our residue management project. We ultimately want to improve consumer confidence. There is always room for improvement.

What are MRLs and how are they set?

MRLs are trade standards based on residue trials set by regulators. They are set below toxicological safety limits. Demonstrated consumer safety is an indispensable pre-condition for granting MRLs; they are also about trade and marketability of produce. Ultimately, MRLs verify if farmers have used crop protection products correctly. If an MRL is exceeded, it is against the law and in theory, the produce cannot be sold. But some produce slips through the cracks as not every apple tree can be tested.

Are MRLs harmonized around the world?

Unfortunately, there are no globally harmonized MRLs. There are many different MRL systems around the world, such as in the United States and EU, as well as Codex Alimentarius internationally. Crop protection product manufacturers start the process of getting MRLs in the country of use by submitting local data packages. In a local market, an MRL is set routinely before a product is registered but not automatically in export markets. If a
product is not registered in an export market, the company should submit to regulators for an import tolerance to be set, which should be similar to the MRL in the local market.

How do MRLs impact trade?

MRLs are the cornerstone to trade. A crop is not legally tradeable if it exceeds MRLs. There are no globally harmonized MRLs and this is sometimes a challenge because farmers must comply with MRLs in both exporting and importing countries. For example, if South African grapes are sent to the EU, they must comply with both South African and European MRLs. Thus, farmers need to be well informed about what MRLs are in export markets. There is no guarantee that following label instructions locally will meet

Do all trading countries comply with MRLs?

Exceeding MRLs is the exception, not the rule. Exporters are typically aware of MRLs around the world as exports that don’t meet import tolerances may be rejected at the border. Traders advise farmers and monitor produce along with supermarket chains. For the few exceptions, the ECPA residue management project aims to help exporters meet EU MRLs.

What is the ECPA doing about MRL exceedances? 

A few years ago, we started a pilot project with partners in Spain and Turkey. We transfer best practices on residue management from Almeria, Spain to Turkey in a train-the trainer program. We have seen a major improvement in residue management in Almeria, and this should also work in Turkey. Compliance with EU MRLs and food safety is key for Turkey as it exports a lot of produce to the EU. Greenhouse tomatoes and peppers are a focus because they are grown in large quantities in both countries.

Should consumers be concerned about pesticide residues?

No, as there is a huge gap between perception and reality. Even if the legal maximum limit for residues is exceeded, it is not necessarily a risk because of the huge safety margins. For example, one would have to eat 28,000 strawberries in a single day to come close to exceeding the safety limit.

How is consumer safety ensured?

It starts with us as an industry. We test products extensively and do not submit for registration unless we are confident in their safety. Authorities then run independent assessments and concur or not. Then there is monitoring in the food chain from traders to supermarkets. Hundreds of thousands of samples worldwide are analyzed for residues year after year. In developing countries, there is still a gap, but standards have gotten higher worldwide and continue to be better.

How can consumers protect themselves from pesticide residues?

Most residues are on the skin 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 pay attention to “watch lists.”