FAQ – Pesticide Residues in Food

1. Which of the Government Department / Authority is responsible for the control of food safety, including the control of pesticide residues in food ?

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In India the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)  is responsible for the overall safety of food. 

2. What is pesticide? 

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In broad sense, pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating pests. Classes of pesticides commonly used in crops growing include insecticides (to control insect infestations), fungicides (to control the spread of fungal diseases) and herbicides (to control the competing effects of weeds). The term includes substances intended for use as a plant growth regulator, defoliant, desiccant, fruit thinning agent, or sprouting inhibitor and substances applied to crops either before or after harvest to protect the commodity from deterioration during storage and transport. 

3. Why would pesticide residues appear in food? 

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Pesticide residues may be present in food because of the following reasons:

  • direct use of pesticides on food crops;

  • animal feeding on pesticide treated feed; or

  • environmental contamination

Common use of pesticides in modern farming might leave some residues on food crops.

4. Why would food contain excessive pesticide residues? 

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Excessive pesticide residues in food may arise from the trade not observing good agricultural practice, e.g. the use of excessive pesticide and not allowing sufficient time for pesticide to decompose before harvesting.

5. Should I take less vegetables as they may contain pesticide residues?

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The use of pesticide might leave some residues on food crops. However, if pesticide is used in accordance with good agricultural practice, the residual level would be small and consumption of these vegetables will not affect health. Furthermore, vegetables are an essential component of a healthy diet. You are advised to take a balanced diet and eat a variety of fruits and vegetables so as to avoid excessive exposure to pesticide residues from a small range of food items.

6. Would my health be affected if I consume food containing excessive pesticide residues? 

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The adverse effects of pesticide residues depend on the nature of the pesticide, as well as the amount and duration of exposure. Eating food with excessive pesticide residues may cause acute and/or chronic adverse health effects. Symptoms of acute poisoning include vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, dizziness and numbness. In severe cases, people may even have difficulties in breathing, blurred vision and convulsion. Prolonged excessive intakes of pesticide residues have been shown to cause damage to the nervous system or other organs such as liver and kidneys, as well as affect foetal development in animals.

7. Have international authorities assessed the safety of pesticides and established safety standards? 

The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) / World Health Organization (WHO) Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) is responsible for evaluating the safety of pesticides and estimating safety reference values (i.e. Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI)) for individual pesticide.

8. Would my health be affected if the level of pesticide residue intake in a meal exceeds the ADI? 

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The ADI of a chemical is the estimate of the amount of a substance in food or drinking-water, expressed on a body-weight basis, that can be ingested daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk to the consumer. Occasional dietary intake above the ADI does not automatically mean that health is at risk, as ADI is developed based on one’s lifetime exposure. 

9. Are there any international standards on pesticide residues in food? 

In order to protect the health of the consumer while facilitating international trade, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) has established Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) for individual pesticide in selected food commodities. MRL is the maximum concentration of a pesticide residue to be legally permitted in a food commodity. The primary objective of setting MRLs is to encourage the trade to observe good agricultural practice to ensure that only the minimum amount of pesticide is applied to food for achieving pest control need, thereby protecting the health of consumer.

10. Does eating food with pesticide residues exceeding MRLs constitute an immediate health risk?

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Eating food with pesticide residue exceeding MRL does not automatically imply a hazard to health provided the dietary exposure to that particular pesticide falls within the safety reference value. A distinction needs to be made here between MRLs and safety reference values, i.e., ADI for chronic toxicity or Acute Reference Dose (ARfD) for acute toxicity. Even though the primary purpose of setting MRLs in food is to protect the health of consumers and the levels are intended to be toxicologically acceptable (i.e., unlikely to cause acute or chronic toxicities in humans), the MRL is not an equivalent of and should not be taken as a safety reference value per se

11. Media sometime reported that some vegetable samples were found to contain prohibited pesticides. Does it mean that there is a problem in the control of pesticide use? 

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For some pesticides that have been banned or are no longer in use (e.g. DDT, lindane), trace amount of their residues and metabolites may be present in food as environmental contaminants because of their persistence in nature. As such, if the level of these pesticides detected is not high, it does not necessarily reflect that they are still being used in agriculture. 

12. How can I reduce pesticide residues in vegetables? 

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You can wash vegetables in clean running water, and soak the vegetables in water for one hour and then rinse, or alternatively blanch the vegetables in boiling water for one minute and discard the water. For individuals who wish to further reduce their intake of pesticide residues, they can also remove the outer leaves of the vegetables or peel the vegetables as appropriate.

13. Is washing vegetables under running water or soaking in water a better method to remove pesticide residues in vegetables? 

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Repeatedly washing vegetable in running water for several times or soaking vegetable in water for one hour reduced about two-third of the level of a pesticide. However, the effect is much lower if you simply wash vegetables once with water at room temperature.

14. Will soaking or washing vegetables with water result in vitamin/mineral leaching?

Vitamins and minerals will leach out into water if vegetables are being soaked. Loss of nutrients from washing vegetables is less than that from soaking.

15. How should I handle fruits to reduce the intake of pesticide residues? 

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You can wash fruits thoroughly in clean running water. For individuals who wish to further reduce their intake of pesticide residues, they may peel the fruits.

16. Does the use of detergent specialised for cleaning fruits and vegetables reduce the intake of pesticide residues? 

There are some detergents available in the market claimed to remove pesticide residues on the surface of fruits and vegetables. However, international food safety authorities have no conclusion on the issue. Nevertheless, you should rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly after the use of detergent, otherwise the detergent may be consumed together with the fruits and vegetables.

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2 thoughts on “FAQ – Pesticide Residues in Food

  1. Pingback: The truth about pesticides and your food | Enlightened Lotus Wellness

  2. Pingback: No More Excuses: If You Want Organic Living, You Can Have It | Recipes for a Healthy You

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