Traces of chemical contaminants in food – three questions for Roger Genet

Roger Genet, Director General of ANSES, considers the issue of chemical contaminants in fruit and vegetables, which does not necessarily translate into a risk for the consumer. He explains how the Agency goes about monitoring the presence of pesticide residues in food, assessing the exposure of different population groups and ensuring consumer protection.

Were you surprised by the most recent study by the environmental protection association Générations Futures, which revealed that nearly three-quarters of non-organic fruit and 41% of non-organic vegetables contain traces of pesticides?

Traces of chemical contaminants in food do not necessarily mean that there is a risk to health. Consumers are aware that residues of chemicals can be found in a number of foods such as fruit and vegetables. That is why we recommend peeling or washing these products before eating them! In addition, there are thresholds, Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs), defined according to a strict regulatory framework, which also protect consumers to the extent of our current knowledge. Produce that exceeds these thresholds is not authorised for marketing, whether as food for human consumption or animal feed. These MRLs are established following an assessment of the chronic hazards and risks, and a broad safety margin is included when setting them. Therefore, traces of pesticides in foodstuffs at levels below or equal to the MRLs, and sometimes even exceeding them in exceptional cases, do not necessarily mean that there is any risk to the health of consumers.

Ultimately, do we really know to what extent consumers are exposed to these contaminants?

Thanks to the studies that we carry out on a regular basis, we have very precise data. This is because ANSES conducts Total Diet Studies (TDS), which monitor the exposure of consumers to chemicals present in foods as consumed (peeled and prepared). The most recent studies, published in 2011 and 2016, concerning respectively the diets of adults and of children under the age of three (TDS2 and iTDS), show that the health risks related to food are well controlled. Out of respectively 452 and 670 chemical contaminants assayed for and analysed in the framework of these two studies, fewer than a dozen substances such as lead, cadmium, inorganic arsenic, PCBs or acrylamide were found to exceed the reference values and therefore to require an effort to reduce the exposure of certain population groups at risk. ANSES also plans to update these data in 2019.

It should be noted that strengthening the regulations in recent years seems to have brought about significant progress. The most recent controls carried out at European level indicate that more than 97% of the food samples collected in the European Union in 2015 were within the authorised limits, with a little more than 53% of samples free of quantifiable residues. However, more can be done, and through our activities and expertise we are helping reduce environmental contamination and its impact on health as far as possible.

As was pointed out during the National Consultation on Food, this also involves finding ways to reduce the use of pesticides, developing alternative plant protection products and implementing alternative solutions, such as biocontrol methods. Measures must also be taken (or strengthened) to reduce the exposure of certain population groups, and in particular this requires applying policies to control discharges into the environment and setting regulatory thresholds as low as possible.

How do you recommend achieving a balanced diet while reducing exposure to chemical risk? 

Consumers should be aware that the main risk of exceeding the recommended limits is often associated with specific behaviour patterns, such as high consumption of a given food or group of foods. The Agency regularly issues reminders that a balanced and healthy diet means a varied diet, consuming a variety of foods from different sources of supply. It also recommends eating more pulses, wholegrain cereal products, vegetables, fruit, and certain vegetable oils. On the other hand, the Agency insists on the need to limit the consumption of meat, except for poultry, and especially delicatessen meats, and also of sweetened beverages.
For children in particular, we stress the need to follow the recommendations of the National Health and Nutrition Programme (PNNS) and to not introduce dietary diversification until after the age of 6 months. This is because dietary diversification can lead to exposure to certain contaminants that may be higher than that resulting from the consumption of infant formulas, although this is not deemed to be of particular concern.