Behind the headlines: Are we at risk from pesticides?

A study has found 30 per cent of foods contain pesticides reports Emma Baines

What is the story?

Nearly a third of the food and drink on sale in the UK contains potentially harmful pesticides, according to media reports.

The papers reported that a government advisory body had discovered pesticide residue on more than 30 per cent of food samples  tested in 2005. The proportion of foods containing pesticides above the safety threshold went up by more than a third last year to 1.7 per cent.

Newspapers also reported that pesticide contamination was more common in food destined to be eaten by schoolchildren than in other products.

Nearly 80 per cent of fruit and vegetables in schools contained traces of some pesticide residue, they claimed. They added that it was more common for school foods to contain pesticide residue at levels above the legal limit. Nearly 2 per cent of food items going to schools contained more pesticide residues than legally allowed, they warned.

What is the research?

The media stories are based on the annual report of the Pesticide Residues Committee (PRC), an independent body set up to advise the government on pesticide safety.

The report contains the findings of 39 surveys of pesticide levels carried out in the 2005 pesticide monitoring programme. Overall, 3,787 food items were tested for the presence of one or more pesticides. Of these, 1,966 samples were of UK produce, while 1,821 were imported.

The samples included fruit, vegetables, animal and cereal products, and some processed foodstuffs such as tea, olive oil, fruit juice and infant foods.

Of the items tested, 68.1 per cent were completely free from pesticide residues. No residues were detected in any chicken, eggs, infant formula, kidney, milk or swede. A further 30.2 per cent of the samples tested positive for pesticides at levels well within the maximum residue limit (MRL) set by the government.

Residues at levels exceeding the MRL were found in 1.7 per cent of foods. Of the UK foods, just 0.3 per cent contained pesti-cides at levels higher than the MRL, while 3.2 per cent of im-ported foods exceeded the limit.

The PRC then carried out a risk assessment for all the foods that contained pesticide residue at levels higher than the MRL. It determined that none of them were harmful.

What does the PRC say?

Dr Ian Brown, PRC chairman, said: ‘In most of our food, we did not find pesticide residues, but 1.7 per cent of food contained residues above the maximum levels set by law.

‘This is a higher percentage than in recent years, and is mainly because we have targeted certain exotic fruits and vegetables where residues are likely to be above these limits.

‘We have carried out full risk assessments of these cases, which included looking at the most vul-nerable people, such as toddlers and infants. Most of the residues did not give us any concerns for the health of any group of people who might have eaten the foods.’

A Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs spokeswoman added that most of the pesticide residues were found in the rinds and skins of foods such as oranges and ba-nanas, which would be removed before eating them anyway. ‘The health benefits of eating plenty of fruit and vegetables far outweigh any potential risk from pesticide contamination,’ she said.

What do other experts say?

Professor Alan Boobis, head of the department of health toxicology at Imperial College London, dismissed the concerns.

He said pesticide levels in foods in the UK were very low, and eating food with some pesticide residue on it was not dangerous: ‘There is no convincing evidence that long-term exposure to pesticides permitted for use in the UK presents any risk to health,’ he said. Even food with pesticide residues at levels exceeding the MRL were mostly safe to eat, he added.

Professor Boobis said the MRL was set much lower than the maximum allowable daily intake, which is the level at which exposure could cause harm.

There was no evidence organically grown food was healthier than food grown using synthetic chemicals. ‘It may be environmentally friendlier but there is no evidence that it is any healthier, and it is certainly much more expensive.’

Informing patients

A government report noted 30 per cent of food sold in the UK contains pesticide.

A very small number of food items have pesticides levels higher than is recommended.

The highest levels were in exotic imported fruits.

Eating food with a small amount of pesticide on it is not dangerous.

You can reduce your pes-ticide intake by washing and peeling fruit and vegetables before eating them.

What the papers said

“Pesticide residues found in nearly a third of Britain’s food and drink”

The Independent

“Pesticides found in a third of our food”

Daily Mail

“Pesticides ‘in a third of foods’”


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