UK Researchers Find Pesticide Cocktails in Common Foods

LONDON, United Kingdom, September 20, 2000 (ENS) - A government report into pesticide levels in food has prompted calls for more research on the so-called cocktail effects of multiple residues in commonly eaten food, such as oranges, apples and celery.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth has been quick to seize upon findings in the Pesticide Residues Committee's (PRC) 1999 report, which show that pesticide residues showed up in 43 percent of fresh fruit and vegetable samples - up from from 33 percent the year before.


A farmer sprays his crop with pesticides. (Photo courtesy J. Giuliano)
Pesticides such as insecticides, herbicides and fungicides are potentially hazardous substances. Without effective regulation and control they could present health risks to the people applying them and to consumers of treated crops and produce. In addition they pose risks to wildlife and the environment.

The Pesticide Residues Committee is a government appointed committee of experts made up of an independent chairman, consumer, retail and agricultural representatives as well as government scientists. By the end of this year, the group will be reformed with an entirely independent membership.

It is part of the Ministry of Agriculture's Pesticides Safety Directorate, which advises the government on pesticides policy and evaluates and processes applications for approval of pesticide products.

Every year, the committee analyzes more than 2,000 samples of UK produced and imported produce, everything from beer to Chinese canned pork products. Some 90,000 tests are carried out on these samples, taken from supermarkets, independent grocers and market stalls at a cost of 1.6 million (US$2.26 million).

Of the 2,300 samples tested in 1999, 71.4 percent contained no detectable pesticide residues, 27 percent had measurable residues and 1.6 percent had residues above the maximum residue level.

This level is the highest concentration of a pesticide residue legally permitted in or on food commodities and animal feeds. Residues not approved for use in the UK were detected in one sample of lettuce, three samples of pears and one sample of strawberries.

Two pesticides thought to be a possible risk to public health were chlormequat in a pear sample, and methamidophos in a sweet pepper. Both products were removed from shelves and the producers notified.


Residues not approved for use in the UK were detected in one sample of strawberries. (Photo by Ken Hammond, courtesy Agricultural Research Service)
The overall trend in dietary staples such as bread, milk and potatoes was for levels of pesticide residues to fall.

But the levels rose in fruit and vegetable samples with multiple pesticide residues prevalent in oranges. Some 93 percent of oranges with residues contained multiple residues. Apples and celery also contained multiple residues.

"Little is known about the toxicological interactions between pesticides and therefore we must turn our attention to foods more likely to contain multiple residues," said PRC chairman Ian Shaw.

"In general, pesticide levels in food are low and risks to the consumer are correspondingly low," said Shaw. "However there are areas where I would like to see an improvement, in particular multiple residues in fruit and vegetables. The UK growers and supermarkets should concentrate on these issues in 2000 with a view to minimizing multiple residues."

Sandra Bell, real foods campaigner at Friends of the Earth took a more critical view. "The public will be dismayed to learn that almost half the fresh fruit and vegetables they are eating contain pesticides," said Bell.

"The government encourages people - including pregnant women and babies - to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, so they should be doing more to ensure that they are pesticide-free. It's also unacceptable for government advisors to say that pesticide residue levels are safe when no one knows what long term effect pesticides may have on our health."

Earlier this month Friends of the Earth issued a report which claimed pesticide regulations contained several flaws. In particular, the lack of consideration given to the effects of pesticide cocktails was highlighted.

The group criticized the government's new regulations limiting residues in baby food because the laws do not take effect until 2002. Friends of the Earth wants all food for babies, known to be more vulnerable to exposure to low levels of toxic chemicals, to be free of pesticide residues - including fresh fruit and vegetables.

The Food Standards Agency, set up by the UK government in April to advise the public and government on general food safety "from farm to fork," has set up a working party to study the cocktail effect of multiple pesticides in food.


Babies and young children are more vulnerable to exposure to pesticides. (Photo by Keith Weller, courtesy Agricultural Research Service)
"We are concerned that 1.6 percent of samples exceed the legal limits and that is unacceptable," said agency chairman Sir John Krebs of the government's new report.

"However they are well within safety margins. We are pleased that measures are in place to detect breaches of safety limits and that action is being taken promptly where ever the legal limits are exceeded."

Sir John is a scientist internationally renowned for his research on the behaviour and ecology of animals. Between 1994 and 1999, Sir John was chief executive of the UK Natural Environment Research Council.

To read the full report, visit