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Food and Health E-ssentials

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Food pesticide residues in Italy, India: Global problem, local solutions

Since they were first introduced in the 1940s, synthetic pesticides have been an essential component of agricultural production around the world. But, while pesticides can help to protect crops from insects, weeds and other pests and support increased agricultural yields, they are also potentially toxic to humans and can lead to serious health consequences and even death. Therefore, most jurisdictions around the world have implemented controls on the use of pesticides and on pesticide residue in foods.

Although separated by more than 6500 kilometres, Italy and India nonetheless share many of the same challenges when it comes to pesticide residues in food products. This article will discuss the pesticide challenges facing food producers in these two countries, as well as how TÜV SÜD is helping producers to meet those challenges. 

What are pesticides?

Pesticides are generally considered to be any substance or mixture of different substances designed for the purpose of destroying, suppressing or preventing of any pest that could interfere with agricultural products or animal livestock. Various types of pesticides include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, biocides, acaricides and rodenticides. The World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations estimates that there are more than 1000 different pesticides used around the world[1],  although other sources suggest that the total number of pesticide products on the market are significantly greater[2]

In recent years, the introduction of new chemicals has helped to make modern pesticides safer for humans and more environmentally-preferable than older alternatives. For example, according to the WHO, none of the pesticides being legally marketed for use with food products is genotoxic, that is, capable of altering human DNA and leading to genetic mutations or cancer, as long as pesticide residues remain below levels deemed to be safe for humans. Accordingly, most countries have established maximum residue limits (MRLs) for food products sold or marketed to their consumers. 

However, the increase in the number of newly-introduced and modified chemicals used in pesticides in recent years has further complicated the process of evaluating their safety. At the same time, new or more recent research on certain legacy chemicals used in pesticides may reveal previously unanticipated health or safety concerns. As a result, regulators are forced to continually re-evaluate existing requirements to account for these changes, and introduce new MRLs or modify existing MRLs for food products as necessary.

Why pesticides remain essential to agriculture

Despite the potential risk, the continued use of pesticides in connection with agricultural production may be more important than ever as nations struggle to meet the growing demand for food. In developing countries around the world, for example, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that as much as 80% of the increase in food production needed to match population growth over the next 30 years will come from increases in crop yields and shorter growth cycles that enable more frequent harvests[3].  

The challenge of meeting future food demands may be most acute in countries like India, which is projected to have a population of nearly 1.45 billion people by the year 2024, surpassing China as the most populated country in the world[4]. Due to its size and geographic characteristics, India boasts a highly diversified agricultural economy, and is the world’s second largest producer of rice, wheat and other cereal products[5]. India is also a major exporter of rice and a variety of other foods, including fruits, vegetables and spices. As such, agricultural activity is an essential component of India’s economy, one that depends on the extensive use of pesticides to protect food plants from pests and diseases. 

Like India, agricultural activity in Italy also constitutes a key element of that country’s economy, making an important contribution to Italy’s economic stability. However, Italy differs from India in that a significant portion its agricultural production involves high-value food products, such as wine, olive oil, pasta, cheese and certain fruits and vegetables. Food products from Italy have global appeal and are sought out by discerning consumers around the world for their distinctive quality. As such, the use of pesticides is critical in protecting food crops that can generate significant economic return for agricultural producers.  

In these and other circumstances, the continued safe use of pesticides in connection with agricultural activities is likely to remain an essential component in food supply chain activities for the foreseeable future. The question, therefore, is how to help ensure that pesticide residues in food products are safe and do not exceed established MRLs. 

Pesticide Regulations and Controls in Italy and India

As a Member State in the European Union (EU), Italy is subject to EU laws and regulations, and two EU pesticide regulations are worthy of note here. The first, EU Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 establishes a formal registration procedure for any pesticides used to protect plants and food crops from pests and disease. The Regulation also establishes clear cut-off criteria for the assessment of new pesticides, and bans altogether the introduction or use of pesticides that have been linked to specific risks to human health or the environment. 

In addition, food products sold or marketed in Italy and throughout the EU must comply with the requirements of a second regulation, EU Regulation (EC) No 396/2005, which establishes MRLs for pesticides permitted in food products of plant or animal origin and intended for human consumption. MRLs for individual pesticides are based on a comprehensive risk assessment and are set at the upper limit deemed safe for human exposure. The EU Commission regularly reviews and updates established MRLs applicable to a given pesticide in a food product based on the latest scientific reviews and findings by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and others.  

In India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has established an extensive list of MRLs for pesticides, toxins and other contaminants found in food products. Running nearly 20 pages in length, FSS (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Regulations, 2011, specifies MRLs for many foods and food products by type of pesticide or contaminant. Like Italy, India also requires the registration of pesticides intended for use with food crops through its Pesticide Registration Committee, and bans the use of certain pesticides linked to human health issues. 

In recent years, authorities in India have stepped up their oversight of pesticides used in connection with food products and of pesticide MRLs in certain food products. Pesticide residues in food products are being regularly monitored, with a special focus on foods destined for export. And new pesticide compounds submitted for registration are routinely evaluated for their safety, and can be banned from use when linked to health or environmental issues. 

How TÜV SÜD can help

As a global organisation committed to the safety of food products around the world, TÜV SÜD has made significant investments in facilities and programs to help food producers in both India and Italy meet regulatory requirements applicable to pesticide residues in food. 

In India, TÜV SÜD offers a full range of consultation, testing and auditing services for food producers based in India as well as producers seeking to export products to India. With state-of-the-art facilities in Bangalore, Gurgaon and Andhra Pradesh, we are equipped to test pesticide residues for more than 400 different compounds at levels equal to or less than 0.01 mg/kg. We can also conduct single residue testing for analysis of plant growth regulators and other polar compounds, as well as glyphosate and its metabolites and other heavy metals. Our facilities are accredited or recognised by FSSAI, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BSI), the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) and the Export Inspection Council (EIC) of India.

In Italy, TÜV SÜD's pH Laboratories has a long-standing reputation for helping producers assess and address food safety concerns. Located in the Tuscany region, pH Laboratories uses a variety of advanced testing methods to conduct multi-residue analyses on more than 700 different pesticides in accordance with EN 15662:2008 QuEChERS methodology, and at levels as low as 0.005 mg/kg. We can also test for a variety of other compounds and elements, including nitrates, bromides and heavy metals. pH Laboratories has been approved for pesticide residue monitoring under the QS Scheme and for pesticide residue testing by the Bundesverband Naturkost Naturwaren (BNN). Our laboratory has also received accreditation from ACCREDIA, Italy’s national laboratory accreditation body, and has been accredited by Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture for the analysis of organic products. 

Ensuring that food products conform with established limits regarding the presence of pesticide residues is no small challenge. Backed by a global network of experts in more than 800 locations around the world, TÜV SÜD’s food testing services in India and Italy help food producers evaluate their products for compliance with pesticide residue limits in these and other countries, supporting their efforts to bring safe and nutritious food and food products to consumers around the world.

 

 

[1] Pesticide residues in food,” from the website of the World Health Organization of the United Nations, 19 February 2018. Available here (as of 15 December 2018).
[2] “Pesticide Illness & Injury Surveillance,” National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated February 7, 2017. Available here (as of 15 December 2018).
[3] “Pesticide residues in food,” see Note #1.
[4] “India’s population to surpass that of China’s around 2024: UN,” report posted to the website of The Economic Times of India, January 21, 2017. Available here (as of 15 December 2018).
[5] “APEDA Products: Cereals,” from the website of the Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority of India (APEDA). Available here (as of 15 December 2018).

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