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

TALLINN - The National Audit Office of Estonia said that the Veterinary and Food Board and the Ministry of Rural Affairs should give people considerably more information about the risks related to the residues of plant protection products contained in food, as at present, the quantity of food studies and laboratory analyses is not sufficient for making generalizations about the safety of all the food sold.

The actual content of the shopping baskets of Estonian people is not taken into account when information is collected and the results of laboratory analyses are presented in a manner that makes the food look cleaner than it actually is, the National Audit Office said in a press release.

"Although the majority of the fresh fruit and vegetables in people's shopping baskets are imported ordinary products, the share of analyses of organic products and local food is disproportionately large among analyses. Organic products do not contain residues of plant protection products and local food is usually cleaner than imported food," it is said in the press release.

A study carried out by the Estonian Institute of Economic Research regarding people's shopping baskets indicates that an estimated 76 percent of fruit, 66 percent of fresh and frozen berries, 64 percent of pasta products and 43 percent of vegetables are imported.

In Estonia, 67 percent of samples were taken from food grown or produced here and only 33 percent of samples were taken from imported products, which is not proportional to the shopping basket. In Finland, for example, only 16 percent of samples were taken from local food and 84 percent from imported food. In addition, in the samples taken from local food in Estonia, the share of organic products was disproportionately big.

The information about food pollution collected by the Veterinary and Food Board and the Ministry of Rural Affairs is based on a small number of laboratory analyses and is therefore inadequate for making generalization about all the food sold. The information presented to the consumers creates the incorrect impression that the active substances of all plant protection products are analysed in all samples taken. Actually, the content of a specific active substance is only analysed in some samples, but the general public are told that the substance was not present in any of the analysed food.

In the opinion of the National Audit Office, the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Veterinary and Food Board focus on checking the compliance of food with legal requirements, that is whether the maximum residue levels have been exceeded, but no attention is given to the fact that the 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 been within the norms in some of the analyzed food, but people should not eat such food in large quantities or every day in order to prevent exceeding the level that is harmful to the body. There are fruits that contain residues of ten-odd plant protection products, the combined impact of which on the body is not known.

The National Audit Office also ascertained 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. The reason is that ascertaining the content of harmful substances and informing the persons concerned about this takes up to a month, and shops manage to sell most of the fruits and vegetables by then.

The Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Veterinary and Food Board both agree that the risks related to the residues of plant protection products should be more thoroughly assessed, but this requires more money. The National Audit Office considers it important to emphasize that the collection and analysis of information and its presentation to people can be considerably improved using the existing money, as the authority's goal is to increase the quantity of smart and informed consumers. The Veterinary and Food Board agreed to correct the mistakes in informing consumers and, in addition to assessing whether the residues limits have been exceeded, assess the risks to human health as well.

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

"But we want to be certain that the food sold in Estonia does not cause harm to our health. We want to trust the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Veterinary and Food Board when they say that we can eat any food that is sold without having to worry that the chemical residues the food contains could cause health problems to us or our loved ones. 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," Holm added.

Cancer, autism, activity and attention disorders, disorders of the hormonal system, foetal abnormalities, and so on have been associated with the accumulation of large quantities of plant protection product residues in the body, the National Audit Office said.

In addition to plant protection product 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, novel food and genetically modified organisms. The audit of the National Audit Office focused on the hazards in food caused by plant protection product residues.

The Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Veterinary and Food Board are responsible for food safety in Estonia. The Agricultural Board is responsible for allowing plant protection products to the market and checks whether or not Estonian agricultural producers use these products correctly.

The average number of laboratory samples tested for plant protection product residues is 350 per year. The Veterinary and Food Board publishes the reports based on the lab results once a year on its website.

The area of food safety is largely regulated with European Union rules. The function of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is to prepare risk assessments about the harmfulness of the pollutants found in food on the basis of scientific analyses and to make proposals for the establishment of limits or prohibitions. The European Commission is currently reviewing the legislation and activities related to food safety and risk assessment.

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