'Illegal' pesticide residues found in food sold in the UK

Forty-seven of the pesticide residues found in foods sold in the UK in 2021 were unauthorised, a green charity has revealed using official figures.

Tractor and crop sprayer spraying in field Source - Getty Images, Henry Arden

The Pesticides Action Network (PAN) carried out an analysis of 2021 data released by the expert committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF), which provides independent advice to the government. It found that there were a total of 137 different pesticide residues across all produce sold in the UK that year.

These included 46 carcinogens, 27 endocrine disruptors (EDCs), 11 ‘developmental or reproductive toxins’, and 14 cholinesterase inhibitors which can cause respiratory damage amongst other side effects.

More than a third of the total pesticides they identified are not approved in the UK.

READ MORE: A green and poisoned land? The UK’s pesticide chokehold

PAN UK policy officer Nick Mole said: “These illegal pesticide residues should not be making it onto the plates of UK consumers. They are either slipping past our shoddy border checks unnoticed, or foreign producers are being handed a competitive advantage by being allowed to use pesticides banned in the UK to protect human health or the environment.

“At a time when we are asking our own farmers to produce more sustainably, we should not be making it harder for them to earn a living.”

A DEFRA spokesperson said:  “The UK upholds strict food safety, health and environmental standards, and our first priority regarding pesticides is to ensure that they will not harm people or pose unacceptable risks to the environment.

“We have strict statutory limits for pesticide residue levels in food and a robust programme of monitoring. These limits apply to all food placed on the market in Great Britain, including imported food, and are always set below the level considered to be safe for consumers.”

The PAN UK researchers also inferred from the data that one in two bread products sold in the UK, including loaves, crumpets and muffins, contain two or more pesticides. The group said this figure is concerning because although the harmful effects of single pesticides are taken into account during the risk assessment, there is missing data on the impact of pesticide mixtures.

Eleven different pesticides were found in bread products in the PRiF data for 2021, including five with links to cancer namely cypermethrin, deltamethrin, flonicamid (insecticides), fosetyl (fungicide) and glyphosate (herbicide).

The group has recommended that the government issues a ban on glyphosate, which is used to artificially dry crops to make harvesting easier. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) labelled glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic”. So far 46 councils in the UK have implemented bans or phase-out commitments to glyphosate.

Mole added: “With the cost of living crisis forcing people to spend less on food, it's vital that consumers can trust that eating relatively cheap products like bread won’t expose them to dangerous mixtures of chemicals.”

Mole highlighted that the government’s National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (NAP) is “already five years late”, with Mole suggesting it will be published next year at the earliest.

The group also undertook an analysis of fruit and vegetables most likely to contain more than one pesticide in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

For 2021, they found 100% of grapefruits were likely to have residues from at least two pesticides - this is the highest percentage of surety that any fruit or vegetable in their ranking received.

Mark Willis, chemical contaminants and residues branch chemical safety policy head at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), commented:  “Our role is to protect consumers by ensuring that any food placed on the market is safe. Where pesticides in a food product are found to be above a maximum residue level the FSA will be informed. If it exceeds this maximum level and may constitute a risk to health, we will ensure appropriate action is taken, such as removing items from the market.” 

Since Brexit, pesticides are regulated under the GB pesticides regime and can only legally be placed on the if it has been authorised by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The HSE, which is responsible for approval and enforcement of chemicals, has been contacted for a comment.