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EU keeping a closer eye on the food contaminant perchlorate

High levels of the contaminant perchlorate have been found in Cucurbitaceae and leaf vegetables especially those grown in glasshouse/under cover.

The presence of the contaminant perchlorate in vegetables, fruit and other foods is to be monitored in the EU, following a recommendation by the European Commission.

The Commission says more data is needed on the occurrence of the residue in food in Europe – especially in vegetables, infant formula, milk and dairy products –– to improve the accuracy of risk assessments.

“High levels have been found in Cucurbitaceae and leaf vegetables especially those grown in glasshouse/under cover,” it said.

It said perchlorate occurs naturally in the environment, but also as an environmental contaminant arising from the use of nitrate fertilisers and from the manufacture, use and disposal of ammonium perchlorate used in rocket propellants, explosives, fireworks, flares and air-bag inflators and in other industrial processes. Perchlorate can also be formed during the degradation of sodium hypochlorite used to disinfect water and can contaminate the water supply. “Water, soil and fertilisers are considered to be potential sources of perchlorate contamination in food.”

In its opinion on the risks for public health related to the presence of perchlorate in food, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (Contam Panel) concluded that chronic dietary exposure to perchlorate is of potential concern, in particular for the high consumers in the younger age groups of the population with mild to moderate iodine deficiency. Furthermore, it is possible that short-term exposure to perchlorate is of concern for breast-fed infants and young children with low iodine intake, it warned.

In a statement on the presence of perchlorate in food, the Commission Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety acknowledged that “divergent approaches as regards the issue of perchlorate in fruits and vegetables have resulted in problems/tensions in intra-Union trade.” It said a harmonised enforcement approach would be appropriate that takes into account “the consumer health protection and what is feasible and achievable taking also into account good practices and regional differences.”

Revised maximum perchlorate concentrations to be used as a reference for intra-Union trade – applicable as of March 16 this year – include:

Fruits and vegetables: 0.1 mg/kg
with the exception of
– Cucurbitaceae and leafy vegetables: 0.2 mg/kg, except
– – celery and spinach grown in glasshouse/undercover 0.5 mg/kg
– – herbs, lettuce and salad plants, including rucola, grown in glasshouse/under cover 1.0 mg/kg

The leafy vegetables grown in glasshouse/under cover have to be labelled as such (or be reasonably demonstrated as being from such production in case of non-compliance with the specific level for open air production) for the application of the specific level as reference value established for the leafy vegetables grown in glasshouse/ under cover. In the absence of such a labelling (or subsequent proof of origin), the levels as reference values for intra-Union trade established for leafy vegetables grown in the open air shall apply.


COMMISSION RECOMMENDATION (EU) 2015/682 of 29 April 2015 on the monitoring of the presence of perchlorate in food

EUROPEAN COMMISSION DIRECTORATE-GENERAL FOR HEALTH AND FOOD SAFETY: Statement as regards the presence of perchlorate in food endorsed by the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed on 10 March 2015, updated on 23 June 2015

Test tube image: CSIRO via Wikimedia Commons

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EFSA: pesticide residues under legal limits in 97% of foods in EU

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More than 97% of food samples evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) contain pesticide residue levels that fall within legal limits, with just under 55% of samples free of detectable traces of these chemicals, EFSA reported today. The findings come from its 2013 annual report on pesticide residues in food, which includes results for almost 81,000 food samples from 27 EU Member States, Iceland and Norway.

The majority of samples (68.2%) were taken from food originating in Europe, with 27.7% coming from food imported from third countries. The percentage of samples from third countries exceeding legal limits was higher (5.7%) than for EU countries (1.4%). However, exceedance rates for imported food have fallen by nearly two percentage points (from 7.5%) since 2012.

For the EU co-ordinated programme, the reporting states tested 11,582 samples from 12 food products – apples, head cabbage, leek, lettuce, peaches, rye, oats, strawberries, tomatoes, cow’s milk, swine meat and wine. The results showed that 99.1% of the samples contained residue levels within permissible limits and almost 53% contained no measurable residues. 

Strawberries had greatest MRL exceedance rate and highest % of multiple residues

The highest MRL exceedance rate was found for strawberries (2.5 % of the samples), followed by lettuce (2.3 %), oats (1.3 %), peaches (1.1 %) and apples (1.0 %). The MRL exceedance rate was below 1 % for the remaining products – head cabbage (0.9 %), tomatoes (0.9 %) leek (0.5 %) and wine (0.1 %).

The products with the highest percentage of samples with multiple residues were strawberries (63 %), peaches (53 %), apples (46 %) and lettuce (36 %). Lower occurrence levels were recorded for oats (28 %), tomatoes (27 %), wine (23 %), rye (16 %), leek (14 %) and head cabbage (4.8 %).

Comparison with 2010 results

Compared to its analysis in 2010, However, EFSA noted a lower number of MRL exceedances related to non-approved pesticides in 2013 in apples, head cabbage, peaches and strawberries. In apples, lettuce and tomatoes some pesticides were found in exceedance of the MRL that were not present or were within the legal limits in 2010.

Assessment of consumer exposure

Considering the frequency of pesticide residues detected in food commonly consumed, a wide range of European consumers are expected to be exposed to these substances via food. To quantify the expected exposure and the related risk, EFSA performed short-term and long-term dietary risk assessments for the pesticides covered by the EU-coordinated programme (EUCP).

The short-term (acute) exposure was calculated for the 12 food products covered by the 2013 EUCP. For the majority of the pesticides assessed, the short-term exposure was found to be negligible or within a range that is unlikely to pose a consumer health concern. The exposure exceeded the toxicological reference value (ARfD) for 218 samples of the total of 18 747 samples taken into account for the short-term dietary exposure assessment (1.16 %), assuming that the product was consumed in high amounts without washing or any processing which would reduce the residues (e.g. peeling).

Most of the cases exceeding the ARfD were due to chlorpyrifos residues (145 determinations), mainly in apples and peaches. The high number of exceedances of the ARfD is related to the fact that the toxicological reference value for chlorpyrifos was recently lowered, which triggers the need to re-evaluate the existing MRLs for chlorpyrifos. Excluding the results for chlorpyrifos, 73 samples contained residues exceeding the ARfD.

Based on the results of the 2013 EUCP, EFSA concluded that the probability of European citizens being exposed to pesticide residues exceeding concentrations that may lead to negative health outcomes was low.

Organic produce

In 15.5 % of samples of organic products (717 of the 4 620 samples analysed) pesticide residues were detected within the legal limits whereas 0.8 % of the samples exceeded the MRL. In these samples, 134 distinct pesticides were identified. In most cases the detected residues were related to pesticides that are permitted for organic farming, persistent environmental pollutants or residues of substances that are not necessarily related to the use of pesticides but which may come from natural sources.

Read more from EFSA here.