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Wednesday, 7 August, 2002, 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK
Pesticide levels 'falling'
Campaigners want pesticide-free food
Campaigners want pesticide-free food
Levels of pesticide residues found on food appear to have fallen, latest official figures show.

Seventeen per cent of the samples examined by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had the residues in or on them.

The figures represent an improvement on findings by Friends of the Earth that up to two thirds of fruit and vegetables in supermarkets contained pesticide residues which could damage human health.

Defra's report, which analysed eight types of food, was compiled over the first three months of this year.

It found 1% were above maximum residue levels, the agricultural industry standard.

Pesticides commonly found in supermarket foods include substances suspected of interfering with the hormone and nervous systems.

Friends of the Earth is calling for the use of the most dangerous pesticides to be phased out, and an eventual move to pesticide-free food.

But Defra stressed its findings showed 83% of the food samples they examined contained no traces of pesticides, and those that did were not at a level which posed a risk to human health.

Disrupting growth

The analysis, from the independent Pesticides Residues Committee, which oversees the government's surveillance of pesticides, looked at fresh produce, sausages and minced meat.

Two samples of Italian tomatoes were found to have unacceptable levels of chlormequat, a chemical used to regulate size and shape.

It is not known what effect the chemical could have on humans.

Residue levels above the maximum set were also found in lettuce.

Dr Ian Brown: says residue levels are safe
Dr Ian Brown: says residue levels are safe
One yam sample also showed excessive levels of a fungicide called carbendazim, which Friends of the Earth say can disrupt growth and affect sperm count.

Levels above the acceptable daily intake, a different measurement, were also found in a sample of sweet potato.

Friends of the Earth surveyed supermarkets based on official data from 1998 to 2000.

The Somerfield chain came out worst in the study, which showed 60% of its fruit and vegetables contained the residues.

Pesticides were found on almost half of all produce from other supermarkets including Sainsbury's, Marks and Spencer and Safeway.

A spokeswoman for Somerfield said: "The products we sell all comply with UK regulations and are safe."

Public safety

Sandra Bell, pesticide campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "There is too much hype from supermarkets about their plans to cut pesticide use, and not enough action.

"Government action is needed too. Stricter limits for pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables must be introduced and more is needed to help UK farmers produce pesticide-free food."

She told BBC News Online: "There is increasing evidence that even a low level of pesticides can have an effect on human health.

"There is particular concern about the effect on young babies and children."

Dr Ian Brown, chairman of the government's pesticides committee, told the BBC: "The most important point is that residues remain within the maximum level.

"That's isn't a safety level, that's a level set by good agricultural practice.

"The majority are within that, the vast majority - 99%.

"And if they're within that level, then the safety margin is for public safety by factors of hundreds, or even thousands.

"So the fact there is a residue there has no impact on health at all, even for vulnerable groups like toddlers."

He admitted there had been concerns about the potential "cocktail effect" of a mixture of different pesticides.

But he added: "So far we have no cause for concern, because the levels are so low."

Dr Brown said he would back pesticide free foods if the same quality and price levels could be maintained for consumers.

Fergus Walsh reports
"It's being stressed that the amount of pesticide is within safety levels"
Friends of the Earth's Sandra Bell
"There's a lot of uncertainty about the effects of these pesticides"
Marks & Spencer's Mike Barry
"We've banned 60 pesticides and we're phasing out another 19"

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See also:

16 Aug 01 | Science/Nature
26 Mar 02 | Health
02 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
07 Aug 02 | Health
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