Rules for limiting pesticides outdated “Strawberries are six times more toxic than other fruit due to ‘cocktail effect’” was the headline of the article in the Dutch daily newspaper, Trouw, last month that made waves. The message from the newspaper is clear: the rules concerning pesticides are outdated.
Each strawberry has been sprayed with an average of seven or eight harmful substances, according to random samples for various fruit and vegetables taken by the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) last year. An analysis of the NVWA figures by Trouw even shows that a consignment of strawberries contained seventeen different substances. The regulator did not intervene because the toxicity of each individual substance remained below the norm.
Current rules outdated
According to experts, the rules are unsound, meaning that consumers are not protected against ingesting excessive amounts of harmful substances. Hans Muilerman of the research group Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe) commented: “The NVWA operates using a totally outdated approach. There has been scientific consensus on this for thirty years. You have to look at the total level of harmful substances – the combined effects and not the toxicity of each individual substance. Some substances have no effect themselves, but do when combined with other substances.”
Cumulative effect of pesticides
Apart from the combined effects, there is also the ‘cumulative effect’. “There are pesticides with the same effect on a certain enzyme. You have to add that all together,” says Lucas Reijnders, biochemist and emeritus professor of environmental science at the University of Amsterdam. And that’s not all – just look at your intake over the rest of the day. Pesticides are not only on strawberries, but on all kinds of fruit and vegetables. “If you start to measure this, it will make a huge change to the way we use pesticides,” says Muilerman.
Twelve years on
In 2004 the Health Council wrote that ‘simultaneous exposure from various sources (food, water, applications in and around the house) should receive systematic attention when risk assessing pesticides’. These insights are just not taken into account by regulators such as the NVWA and are ignored when setting the standards. The NVWA has stated that it complies with the rules of the European regulator, EFSA. Experts within this organisation are also aware of the ‘cocktail effects’, but this has not resulted in changes to the regulations. Muilerman speaks of ‘training’. “In 2005, European regulations changed and regulators have to look at the combined effects. But in a small secondary clause it says: ‘as soon as the EFSA has developed a method for this’. We are now twelve years on and the method is still not ready. It’s scandalous,” says Muilerman.
Twice as much poison
Finally, there is something about the limits on pesticides according to consumer organisation Foodwatch. To determine the maximum dose, the NVWA works with MRL (maximum residue limit), but the EFSA allows this limit to be exceeded by 50% due to ‘measurement uncertainties’. This means that there are currently fruit and vegetables on the shelves containing twice as much poison as the legal limit. Thorough washing or rinsing is of no use, because the harmful substances are absorbed in the fruit.