Pesticide residues in foodstuffs: EFSA and ANSES publish their conclusions

Every year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assesses pesticide residue-linked food risks for the European population based on the results of a surveillance programme involving all the Member States. Today, EFSA publishes its annual report based on surveillance data from 2011. In April, ANSES also published the results of its update of the food risk indicators for pesticide residues in France. This work conducted nationally supplements and expands on the work conducted on the European level thanks to data specific to the French population.  Based on this work, the French agency issues recommendations for more effective risk integration, including a reduction in the lag time between data collection and its application in assessment work, and a reinforcement of the monitoring of imported foodstuffs in order to improve their compliance with maximum residue limits.

Each year, as part of a surveillance programme provided for in the European regulations which establishes a common surveillance framework for all the Member States, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) publishes a report on pesticide residues in foodstuffs. Today it issues its results based on 2011 surveillance data at Member State level.

ANSES's Pesticide Residues Observatory (ORP) was asked to assess food exposure and the risks linked to pesticide residues on the national level, and more specifically to update food risk indicators for the French population. Based on this work, the Agency proposes a prioritisation of pesticide residues and foodstuffs to monitor, by assigning priority levels for the risk assessment and/or management for each substance. This prioritisation makes it possible, in particular, to guide risk managers (ministries of health, food and consumers) in identifying the measures to implement first and in directing surveillance and control plans.

The French situation

For 2011, the surveillance programme deployed in all the Member States called for the surveillance of179active substances in 12 foodstuffs. In this context, EFSA studied over 12 600 samples, including 1 061 originating in France. Considering only the foodstuffs produced in France, the rate of exceedence of the maximum residue limits (MRLs) is 1.1%, representing a rate comparable to that of other Member States such as Germany and the United Kingdom. In contrast, by integrating the data for imported foodstuffs, the rate of exceedence for France came to 3.4%, which is higher than that observed on the European level (1.9%).

These results tend to show that the situation for foodstuffs produced in France is comparable to that of the other Member States. However, ANSES considers that the monitoring of foodstuffs imported into the country needs to be reinforced in order to ensure that imported foodstuffs are compliant with maximum residue limits (MRLs).

EFSA's results also involve national monitoring programmes whose content is left to the initiative of each Member State. Based on data obtained through the national programmes, for 2011 EFSA took into account over 79 000 samples, including 4 358 for France. This work reveals a rate of exceedence of MRLs which is lower for foodstuffs produced in Europe than for those produced in non-European countries. Nevertheless, the level of non-compliance observed in France is higher than in other Member States such as Germany and Italy.

Chronic and acute risks in France: ANSES's work expands on the results obtained on the EU level

EFSA assesses acute and chronic food risks for the foodstuffs and pesticide residues listed in the 2011 surveillance programme and common to all the Member States (coordinated European programme), representing between 12 and 28 foodstuffs - depending on the type of assessment performed (acute or chronic) - and 179 pesticide residues.

In France, the assessment conducted by the ORP, based on food consumption data from the INCA2 study and on the results of the national surveillance programmes for 2011, involves 169 foodstuffs and 524 pesticide residues monitored in France, including those found in water intended for human consumption as well as the total food regimen of the French population. 

This national assessment therefore makes it possible to supplement and expand on the assessment conducted by EFSA, while taking into account the entire food regimen of the French population (6 to 14 times more foodstuffs, depending on the type of assessment - chronic or acute), which allows the integration of certain particularities regarding the French population's eating habits and regarding foodstuff contamination.  

Thus, for chronic risk, ANSES prefers a protective approach which considers individual exposures as well as those of the most highly-exposed individuals, while EFSA's methods take into account Member State-level average exposure rates. This approach has led EFSA to identify two substances which present a potential risk (dieldrin and heptachlor). These substances were not selected as posing a risk in the ANSES opinion. This divergence can be explained by the average contamination level used by EFSA which was higher than the one in the ANSES opinion, because it integrated all of the contamination levels measured throughout Europe. The ANSES opinion does however recommend pursuing the surveillance of these substances by extending it to the foodstuffs which contribute the most to its presence.

In contrast, the approach used in the ANSES opinion identified seven pesticides in France which present a risk: dimethoate, lindane, carbofuran, imazalil, dithiocarbamates, fipronil and nicotine.

For acute risk, EFSA takes into account the highest contamination levels in all of Europe for the calculation of exposures, which is not representative of the situation for consumers in France.

Thus, EFSA has identified on the EU level 31 pesticides with an acute risk for at least one foodstuff. Among these 31 pesticides, 13 [1] have also been identified in the ANSES opinion. In addition, two substances which are not listed in the European coordinated surveillance programme present a risk for France (thiabendazole and nicotine). And finally, by taking into account all of the analyses conducted in France (including the national surveillance programme), two substances which were not identified as a risk on the European level do present a risk in France (bifenthrin [2] and methidathion). In all, 17 substances have been identified as a risk in France by ANSES. 

ANSES's conclusions and recommendations

Based on all the information obtained, ANSES has identified:

  • substances with acute or chronic risk and for which management and/or surveillance initiatives must be taken;
  • substances for which uncertainties remain and which require reinforced surveillance;
  • substances currently not under surveillance and for which a theoretical risk is possible, requiring their integration into future surveillance programmes.

To guarantee the effectiveness of this work, ANSES considers in its opinion that it is essential to reduce the time period between the collection of data and their transmission for risk assessment work (currently two years in France and in the EU). Beyond this, it also emphasises the potential for reinforcing the monitoring of certain foodstuffs and substances of interest.

It would also be useful for risk assessors to have at their disposal additional analytical information in order to reduce the uncertainties linked to censured data, in particular by identifying traces (pesticides detected but not quantified).

Like EFSA, ANSES has also begun exploratory studies in the area of simultaneous exposure to several pesticides (ANR's "Pericles" programme, participation in the European "Acropolis" project), and these results should be progressively incorporated as progress is made in the Europe-wide work being conducted in this field.

[1] Bitertanol, carbaryl, carbendazim, dimethoate, dithiocarbamates, endosulfan, folpel, imazalil, methamidophos, methomyl, oxamyl, prochloraz, thiacloprid.

[2] Substance identified as a risk by EFSA based on 2010 surveillance data.