There has been a rise in findings of pesticides in food above legal limits, according to data published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The rate of maximum residue level (MRL) exceedances in 2020 increased compared with 2019 and 2018. It remained high for unprocessed and processed grape leaves, unprocessed cumin seed and processed Brazil nuts that are not covered in random EU testing.
The report is based on data from national official controls by European Union member states, Iceland and Norway and includes figures from the EU‐coordinated control program, which uses a randomized sampling strategy.
National control programs are risk-based, targeting products that likely contain pesticide residues or for which infringements have been identified in past years.
National targeted findings
The number of samples decreased by 9.3 percent compared to 2019 mainly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reporting countries analyzed 659 pesticides, with an average of 264 per sample.
For 2020, 94.9 percent of 88,141 samples analyzed fell below the MRL, 5.1 percent exceeded this level, of which 3.6 percent were non‐compliant after taking measurement uncertainty into account. MRLs were exceeded in 3.9 percent of samples in 2019 and 2.3 percent triggered legal sanctions or enforcement actions.
The EU non-approved active substances with the highest MRL exceedance rate were ethylene oxide, chlorates, chlordecone, chlorpyrifos and anthraquinone.
For ethylene oxide, 49 of 230 samples were found to exceed the MRL and 46 were of sesame seeds. This issue was detected in Belgium in late 2020 in sesame seeds from India. No safe levels for this pesticide are established in the EU. Its use is linked to reducing Salmonella.
For chlorpyrifos, 327 samples of 73,874 exceeded the MRL. The substance is not approved for use in the EU since April 2020.
Multiple residues were reported in 24,057 samples. In one strawberry sample of unknown origin up to 35 different pesticides were found. Unprocessed sweet and bell peppers and wine had the highest frequency of multiple quantified residues.
EU random sampling
The EU program covered carrots, cauliflower, kiwi fruit, onions, oranges, pears, potatoes, dried beans, brown rice, rye grain, bovine liver and poultry fat.
For the 12,077 samples analyzed as part of this program, 1.7 percent exceeded the MRL and 0.9 percent were non‐compliant.
MRL exceedance rates rose from 2014 to 2017 and to 2020 in rice, oranges, pears and poultry fat. An increased trend from 2017 to 2020 was also observed in dried beans, kiwi fruit and cauliflower.
Oranges, followed by pears, carrots and rice had the highest number of samples with multiple residues. In one rice sample of unknown origin, 15 different pesticides were quantified.
One non-compliant result was mentioned for fipronil in potatoes. Detection of fipronil residues by Belgian authorities in 2017 led to millions of eggs being recalled in Europe.
From 4,632 samples flagged as organic, 87 were reported with residue levels above their corresponding MRLs, of which 36 samples were non-compliant.
Up to 30 different pesticides were found in honey, mainly thiacloprid. Substances with non-approved uses such as amitraz, chlorfenvinphos and coumaphos were detected.
Samples imported from non-EU countries were found to have a higher MRL exceedance rate and a higher non-compliance level compared to food produced within the EU.
An EFSA dietary risk assessment, as part of its analysis of results, suggests the sampled food commodities are unlikely to pose a concern for consumer health.
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