Tough EC limit proposed for pesticides in baby food

Proposals for stringent limits on pesticides in baby and infant food were unveiled by the European Commission in October. Official data suggest that the limits are widely breached in the UK in some foods.

The Commission's proposals are based on the precautionary principle in the light of advice from its Scientific Committee on Food (SCF). They would introduce a limit of 0.01mg/kg for all pesticides into two existing Directives on infant and follow-on formulae and on baby foods.

According to the Commission, about 40% of the products on the EC market meet the proposed standard, which is already in force in Austria, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. Food manufacturers would have until the end of 2001 to modify their processes and raw material supplies.

The proposals have been under discussion within the Commission for some years. They are a victory for the Industry Directorate, which has wanted a single EC-wide standard on internal market grounds. The Agriculture Directorate has been arguing for a case-by-case approach in which residue limits would be set for individual pesticides on the basis of their specific toxicity, but the draft Directives only allow for this to be done in the future.

The proposals also provide for specific pesticides to be banned in future from use on crops intended for production of infant and baby foods if "under worst case intake conditions the allowable daily intake value of these pesticides is exceeded."

Two opinions had to be sought from the SCF before the Commission felt able to make the proposals. Last autumn, the SCF made it clear that a limit of 0.01mg/kg would have no toxicological basis. In a second opinion this summer, it acknowledged that available data from studies on pesticides might not have revealed all potential health effects, especially emerging endocrine-disrupting, developmental neurotoxicity and immunotoxicological effects for which test methods are still being developed.

In announcing its proposals, the Commission transmuted these opinions into the view that "for the vast majority of the 800 or more different pesticides notified to the Commission, no scientific data are yet available on the maximum residue levels known to be harmless for infants." Application of the same approach in other areas of chemicals policy would have potentially far-reaching implications.

The proposals will now be considered by the Standing Committee on Foodstuffs. They can be adopted by qualified majority vote, but if this is not forthcoming then the Directives will be referred to the Council of Ministers.

Data in the latest annual report on pesticide residues in food published by the Ministry of Agriculture in September show that suppliers of fruit-based infant food in the UK will face a major challenge to comply with the proposed limit.

Fourteen of the 26 non-organic foods of UK origin contained pesticides at or above 0.01mg/kg, as did four of the five samples imported from France. No residues were detected in eight samples imported from Germany. Concentrations of individual pesticides ranged up to 0.3mg/kg.

The survey also found two or more pesticides in 19 of the 31 samples of UK and French origin. Of these, seven UK samples contained five pesticides at a total concentration of up to 0.43mg/kg.

Including five infant foods manufactured from organic produce, 44% of the 48 samples analysed in 1997 contained pesticide residues at or above 0.01mg/kg, with multiple residues detected in 40% of samples. Much lower values of 22% and 10%, respectively, were found in a survey in 1994. The report says that the "apparent increase...may be explained by the reduction in reporting limits for some pesticides" since 1994.

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