People need more information about risks related to residues of plant protection products, such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, in food, according to a report in Estonia.

The National Audit Office looked at whether the public is given correct and adequate information about the residues of chemicals contained in plant-based food.

Currently, the quantity of studies and laboratory analyzes is not sufficient to make generalizations about the safety of all food sold. The average number of lab samples tested for plant protection product residues is 350 per year.

Short shelf life poses problem
The audit found information presented to consumers creates the incorrect impression that the active substances of all plant protection products are analyzed in all samples taken when in reality the amount of a specific active substance is only tested in some samples.

Actual content in the shopping baskets of Estonian people is not taken into account when information is collected and results of lab tests are presented in a way that makes the content of residues seem only half as high as it actually is, which makes the food look cleaner, according to the National Audit Office.

Although most fresh fruit and vegetables in people’s shopping baskets are imported ordinary products, the share of analyzes of organic products and local food is disproportionately large. Organic items sometimes do not contain residues of plant protection products.

The audit focused on hazards in food caused by plant protection product residues. It assessed how the authorities collect and process information as well as what kind of information is presented and what is not revealed.

The National Audit Office found the Ministry of Rural Affairs and Veterinary and Food Board focus on checking compliance of food with legal requirements but no attention is given to the fact health risks are related to how much food containing residue is eaten and who eats such items.

Fruits and vegetables could be sold with harmful quantities of plant protection product residues because test results take up to a month.

How a carrot causes confusion
Janar Holm, auditor general, said some problems related to food safety would be solved if officials at the Ministry of Rural Affairs finally agree on what a carrot is.

“Apparently, the Agricultural Board sees a carrot as a plant, but to the Veterinary and Food Board, it is food. If you ask these authorities whether Estonian food has become cleaner, the first will not give you an answer, because they don’t consider themselves responsible for food safety and therefore don’t collect information that is generalized enough for the assessment of food safety – they only assess plant health,” he said.

“The Veterinary and Food Board, however, cannot answer this question, because they are not responsible for growing Estonian food and don’t collect information about the plant protection products used when the plants are grown.”

The amount of plant protection product residues has been within the limits in some of the analyzed food, but people should not eat such food in large quantities or every day to prevent exceeding the level that is harmful. There are fruits that contain residues of 10-odd plant protection products, the combined impact of which is not known.

The Ministry of Rural Affairs and Veterinary and Food Board agreed risks related to residues of plant protection products should be more thoroughly assessed but said this requires more money. The National Audit Office believes collection and analysis of information and presentation to the public can be improved using existing money.

The Veterinary and Food Board agreed to correct mistakes in informing consumers and, in addition to looking at whether residues limits have been exceeded, also assess the risks to human health.

Holm said there needs to be certainty that food sold in Estonia doesn’t cause harm to health.

“We want to trust the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Veterinary and Food Board when they say that we can eat any food that is sold without having to worry that the chemical residues the food contains could cause health problems to us or our loved ones. If there may be residues in food which according to some scientists may cause problems and other scientists claim that there is no proof of this, then we want to know about this argument,” he said.

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