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The truth about residues in New Zealand food

23 July 2004 The truth about residues in New Zealand food

New Zealand Food Safety Authority Executive Director, Andrew McKenzie, says NZFSA’s extensive testing programme confirms New Zealand food has among the lowest levels of pesticide residues in the world. He was commenting in response to statements by the Green party, the Soil & Health Association, and Pesticide Action Network Aotearoa.

“NZFSA’s comprehensive, on-going and science-based residue monitoring and surveillance programmes have consistently demonstrated that more than 99.99% of the food produced in New Zealand met or bettered the regulatory agricultural compound residue requirements.

“It is important to have this debate in order that New Zealanders better understand the issues and the science and make up their own minds, and I thank these organisations for contributing. I am disappointed, however, in the poor quality of the ‘information’ they purport to present.

“To state that ‘pesticide contamination is endemic’ because ‘24 out of 25 fruit and vegetables were contaminated’ is misleading, inaccurate and demonstrates a poor understanding of good agricultural practice, economic reality, environmental concern, and science. Indeed, we expect to find more and more residues, which is a tribute to advances in analytical science. As science advances, we are able to detect ever-smaller amounts of residues, in many cases down to a few molecules. The difference is in detecting parts per thousand to parts per billion – it’s like going from using a magnifying glass to a microscope to an electron microscope.

“Every nation in the world that has a high quality of life and good economic well-being for its citizens uses properly controlled, extensively tested agricultural compounds in its food production. To do otherwise would result in one or more of: lower yields; greater damage and loss to pests and disease; greater land area used for agriculture (because the yields per hectare would be lower); fewer food crops available; and higher prices.

“The question being debated is, however, neither economic nor environmental – it is one of safety. The proper use of approved agricultural compounds poses no significant risk to safety in New Zealand or anywhere else in the developed world.”

Dr McKenzie also questions the reasoning behind other statements made by the groups.

“What point is there in reference to ‘a veritable cocktail of pesticide residues’? There is no evidence at all for the ‘cocktail effect’ myth, as will be clear from the material provided on the NZFSA website, including links to the reports of the independent UK Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT).

“To anyone with a basic knowledge of agricultural practice, or an understanding of analytical methods, the statement that ‘there were 13 residues in grapes, nine in apples, seven in celery and six in nectarines’ makes no sense. Samples are tested over a variety of analyses to detect the widest ranges of residues in the most cost-effective manner. For example, a number of apples were tested at once. Each may have had one or two residues, all of different compounds depending on why the farmer was spraying. Any grower who is using nine compounds on his crop is unlikely to be making a profit.

“Environmental contaminants are elemental compounds common in the environment, and are from both natural and manmade sources, and are not related to pesticides – indeed, the Total Diet Survey also looks for nutrients in food, including iodine and iron.

“Reported findings for environmental contaminants were within acceptable – and safe – limits, as were all but three of the more than 45,000 analyses for agricultural compounds. Oysters, for example, live in the sea. The sea contains chemicals, such as cadmium and arsenic, from many sources: undersea and terrestrial volcanoes, erosion of rock, land run-off and manmade sources. Oysters have, throughout the millennia, contained these compounds, in levels relative to the amounts in the water in which the creatures live. For this reason, we have food safety messages about the consumption of these and certain other foods.

“It is difficult to see how our statement, made on 8 June 2004, that MRLs were rarely exceeded could be confused with ‘pesticide-free’: ‘We noted that the last set of results we released indicated 99.9934% of results met or bettered the regulatory agricultural compound residue requirements. This new set of results represents a ‘pass mark’ of 99.99%. Cumulatively, from a total of 150,781 analyses to date, there have been just 12 results of concern, giving a total of 99.9920%’.

“There also appears to be very little understanding among these groups of basic concepts in the use of agricultural compounds and the setting of regulatory requirements, despite these being explained in FAQs on the NZFSA website.

“For example, to claim that ‘small children are at greater risk’ is simply wrong. In addition to there being no scientific evidence of this, after hundreds or peer-reviewed studies over many years, it completely ignores the fact that health safety levels are set based on a lifetime exposure. A ‘lifetime’ includes childhood and exposures during that time.

“By the same token, it is nonsense to claim that ‘the food we are urging our children to eat the most of has the highest levels of contamination’.”

“It is also perplexing why it was unexpected that traces, well below the permitted MRL, of vinclozolin were found in kiwifruit. Although this compound was de-registered at the request of the importer, it still can be legally used and there are New Zealand MRLs for grapes, kiwifruit, strawberries, tomatoes and beans, as is clear from the New Zealand (Maximum Residue Limits of Agricultural Compounds) Food Standards 2004 document that is freely available from our website, as are all the residue level requirements, and results of our monitoring programmes.

“NZFSA is concerned that, when groups such as the Soil & Health Association make these sorts of misleading and erroneous statements they create, in the minds of consumers, unnecessary concerns and fears that are simply not backed by any authoritative research anywhere.

We strongly support the New Zealand Ministry of Health and the Cancer Society’s 5+ a day campaign, and this type of unfounded fear-mongering campaign that seeks to raise doubts about the safety of fresh fruit and vegetables is troubling.”

Other inaccurate statements, particularly in the Soil & Health/Pesticide Action Network Aotearoa media release that, Andrew McKenzie says, need correction for the sake of an informed public include:

although the anti-pesticide groups can ‘suspect’ as much as they like, there is no scientific evidence, despite extensive international research, that low residue level of iprodione is any more a ‘gender-bender’ or carcinogen than the many hundreds of natural chemicals present in food the same applies to the assertions made about dithiocarbamates and vinclozolin – of particular concern to an informed public debate is the selective citing of non-identified ‘recent research’ to ‘prove’ an assertion residues within the regulatory and internationally accepted Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) – as all but three foods in the latest Total Diet Survey were – are acceptable, not ‘unacceptable’ there is no scientific evidence to indicate that conventionally-produced New Zealand food is any less safe than food produced organically ERMA and the Ministry of the Environment are interested in the reduction of pesticides for environmental reasons, and not for reasons of safety; if that were the case the Ministry of Health as well as NZFSA would have concerns there is no Food Safety Agency, as mentioned twice in one of the releases.

Dr McKenzie says he is pleased that Soil & Health has conducted its own residue research, as all robust and validated data from professional laboratories only adds to the body of knowledge in this area, and will continue to help improve food safety for all consumers of New Zealand food. He is looking forward to seeing the full report.

ENDS

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