Audit Office: Significant gaps in plant-based food safety supervision

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Fresh produce for sale at Baltic Station Market.
Fresh produce for sale at Baltic Station Market. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

According to the results of an audit published by the National Audit Office on Monday, the current number of food studies and laboratory analyses is not sufficient for making generalizations about the safety of all food sold; the actual content of Estonian consumers' shopping baskets is not taken into account when information is collected; and the results of laboratory analyses are presented in such a way that food appears to be cleaner than it actually is.

The National Audit Office investigated whether people are provided with accurate and adequate information regarding residues of chemicals contained in plant-based foods, according to a press release.

In the course of the audit, the National Audit Office assessed how authorities collect and process information as well as what kind of information is presented and what is not presented at all.

As a result of the audit, the National Audit Office determined the following:

Information regarding food pollution collected by the Veterinary and Food Board (VTA) and the Ministry of Rural Affairs is based on a small number of laboratory analyses and is thus inadequate grounds for generalizations regarding all foods sold. The information presented to consumers creates the false impression that the active substances of all plant protection products are analyzed in all samples taken. In reality the content of a specific active substance is only analyzed in some samples, but the general public is told that the substance was not present in any of the food analyzed.

Estonian consumers' actual shopping baskets are not taken into account when information is collected. Although the majority of fresh fruit and vegetables in people's shopping baskets are ordinary import products, a disproportionately large share of analyses are conducted on organic and local products. Organic products do not contain plant protection product residues, however, and local food is likewise usually cleaner than imported food.

The VTA processes the results received from laboratories in such a way that residue content only appears half as high as it actually is, making foods look cleaner than they are.

In the opinion of the National Audit Office, while the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the VTA focus on checking for foods' compliance with legal requirements, i.e. whether maximum residue levels have been exceeded, no attention is given to the fact that actual health risks are related to how much food containing residue is eaten and who eats such food. The content of plant protection product residues has fallen within prescribed norms in some of the food analyzed, but in order to avoid exceeding levels harmful to the human body, people should not each such foods in large quantities or on a daily basis. Some fruits contain the residues of some ten or so plant protection products, the combined impact on the body of which is unknown.

The National Audit Office also determined that in the case of highly perishable fruits and vegetables, it is not guaranteed that food containing harmful quantities of plant protection product residues is removed from shelves before people manage to buy them. This is due to the fact that the process of determining the content of harmful substances and informing concerned individuals about this risk takes up to a month, by which time stores have managed to sell most fruits and vegetables.

Ministry, board: We need more money

The Ministry of Rural Affairs and the VTA both agreed that risks related to the residues of plant protection products should be more thoroughly assessed, but noted this requires more money. The National Audit Office considers it important to emphasize, however, that the collection and analysis of information and its presentation to the public can be improved considerably using existing funding, as the goal is to increase the number of smart and informed consumers.

The VTA agreed to correct shortcomings in informing consumers and, in addition to assessing whether residue limits have been exceeded, assess risks to human health as well.

Auditor General: Plant to one, food to another

"Who would've thought that some food safety-related issues would be solved if officials in the area of government of the Ministry of Rural Affairs would finally agree on what a carrot is?" Auditor General Janar Holm said, commenting on the results of the audit. "How come? Apparently, the Agricultural Board sees a carrot as a plant, but to the VTA, it is food. If you ask these authorities whether Estonian food has become cleaner, the first will not answer, because they don't consider themselves responsible for food safety and therefore don't collect information that is generalized enough for the assessment of food safety; they only assess plant health. The VTA, however, cannot answer this question as they are not responsible for growing Estonian food, and don't collect information regarding the plant protection products used when the plants are grown."

The auditor general noted, however, that the goal is to be certain that food sold in Estonia doesn't harm people's health.

"We want to trust the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the VTA when they say that we can eat any food sold without having to worry that chemical residues contained in the food could cause health problems in us or our loved ones," he continued. "If there may be residues in food which according to some scientists may cause problems, and other scientists claim that there is no proof of this, then we want to know about this argument. We want to make our own choices and do what is best for us and our families."

Audit background

Cancer, autism, activity and attention disorders, disorders of the hormonal system, fetal abnormalities and other health issues have been associated with the accumulation of large quantities of plant protection product residues in the body, according to the National Audit Office.

In addition to such residues, food safety also covers requirements for food hygiene, food additives and pollutants, and labeling, as well as for materials and items that come in contact with food, new foods and genetically modified organisms. The National Audit Office's recent audit focused on hazards in food caused by plant protection product residues.

In Estonia, the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the VTA are responsible for food safety. The Agricultural Board, meanwhile, is responsible for allowing plant protection products on the market, and checks whether or not Estonian agricultural producers use these products correctly.

An average of 350 laboratory samples are tested for plant protection product residues annually. The VTA publishes the reports based on these lab results once per year.

The food safety sector is regulated in large part by EU rules. The function of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is to prepare risk assessments regarding the harmfulness of pollutants found in food on the basis of scientific analyses, as well as to submit proposals for the establishment of limits or prohibitions. The European Commission is currently reviewing food safety and risk assessment-related legislation and activities.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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