Pesticide residues in imported food – deregulation at work

September 8, 2020: A study published by Friends of the Earth Australia in May exposed a serious level of pesticide residues on foods imported into Australia in the period 2017-19. The data came from Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service monthly Failing Food Reports.

Foods which are not considered a “Risk Food” are called “Surveillance Foods” and 5 per cent of consignments are tested. Surveillance Food where pesticide tests are carried out include fruit, fruit juices, and vegetables.

There was a total of 400 pesticide detections at or above Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) between 2017-19, with a total of 47 different pesticides breaching MRLs. Many food consignments had multiple pesticide breaches.

China was the country with the most pesticide breaches (148), followed by India (93), Vietnam (44) and Thailand (35). These 4 countries represented 80 percent of the pesticide breaches. About 37 per cent were from China alone.

Australia’s trade with China is regulated by the Sanitary and Phyto Sanitary Agreement in the 2015 China – Australia Free Trade Agreement. Australia’s trade with India is regulated by the 1995 SPS Agreement in the World Trade Organisation, and the trade with Vietnam and Thailand is regulated through the SPS Chapter of the 2010 ASEAN – Australia – New Zealand Free Trade Agreement.

Australia’s Department of Agriculture explains the WTO rules this way: “The SPS Agreement supports the WTO’s agenda for promoting global free trade and realising the benefits that this brings for all WTO members, developed and developing”. The emphasis is on acceptance of the exporting country’s safety standards ahead of the health and safety standard in the importing country.

The FoE Australia study of pesticide residues alone suggests that the SPS agreements are working more to facilitate trade rather than protecting the life and health of humans, animals and plants. Inspections are limited in scope. Detected problems persist, rather than diminish.

FoE Australia found that the most commonly detected of the 47 pesticides breaching MRLs were: Carbendazim (53), Chlorpyrifos (52), Difenconazole (37), Cyhalothrin (31), Tebuconazole (23), Cypermethrin (21), Profenofos (19) and Acephate (19). These 8 pesticides represent 63.75 per cent of all pesticide detections breaching MRLs.

Carbendazim is a broad spectrum, systemic fungicide for the control of certain fungal diseases. It is a possible human carcinogen, linked to infertility, testicular damage and liver tumours in laboratory animals.

Chlorpyrifos targets the nervous system of insects, but it is also moderately toxic to humans, especially in early foetal and infant development. It is very toxic to birds and insects, including bees.

AFTINET advocates that requirements in trade agreements should ensure that imported products meet Australian standards and that there are adequate border inspection processes to prevent entry of foods which do not meet these standards.