The Abbott government has halted a pilot program to monitor pesticides in Australian fruit and vegetables even though it detected residues of up to 90 times the maximum allowable limit in strawberries.
The research also found that levels of pesticides in some samples of peaches and apricots were “unacceptable from the perspective of acute or short-term nutritional hazard,” meaning that eating the affected fruit could pose a health risk.
The results of the aborted pilot project were obtained by the Department of Agriculture in 2013 through a Freedom of Information request.
The previous Labor government had agreed with the states to create the programme, but after the 2013 election Barnaby Joyce, the leader of the Citizens Party and then Minister of Agriculture, passed it and pulled its $25 million in funding.
The government cited budgetary pressures and the results of the trial have not been made public.
Unlike the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Europe, there is no systematic monitoring of agricultural chemicals in most foods sold domestically in Australia.
Meat and some fruits for export such as apples, pears, and macadamias are tested under the National Residue Survey administered by the department.
But the only monitoring of pesticide residues in fruit sold locally is by FreshTest, run by industry body Fresh Markets Australia, which involves growers submitting samples once a year.
The pilot studied hundreds of samples of peaches, apricots and strawberries purchased from fruit and vegetable markets across Australia.
The documentation revealed that one strawberry sample recorded nearly 90 times the maximum residue limit (MRL) for dimethoate, which at the time was set at 0.02 mg/kg. Another sample of strawberries contained 37 times the maximum residue level for the same chemical.
A spokesperson for the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), which approves pesticide use and sets maximum residue limits, said residue control was not within its statutory remit.
In August 2011, the APVMA suspended the use of dimethoate in several food products, including strawberries, but after the results of the monitoring program, the department found that some farmers continued to use it.
Dimethoate can now only be used on very limited crops, including strawberry production, but not on raspberries.
Health authorities have now revised the acceptable daily intake of dimethoate from 0.02 mg/kg to 0.001 mg/kg and set an acute reference dose of 0.02 mg/kg. A sample exceeding the limit 90 times contained 0.76 mg/kg.
Large doses of dimethoate can cause severe poisoning, and small doses may also be a concern. The US Environmental Protection Agency has classified dimethoate as a probable human carcinogen and the European Union banned it in 2019 amid concerns about its impact on reproductive function.
Of the 100 strawberry samples in the experiment, 14 had residues that exceeded the maximum residue limits.
“There were 22 different chemicals detected in the samples, and seven different chemicals detected where concentrations exceeded the maximum allowable for the APVMA,” the documents said. The majority of the detected chemicals (18) were registered for use in strawberries.
“The chemical most frequently detected in the incompatible samples was dimethoate, which was found in seven samples.”
Then the department tested 300 samples each of apricot and peach.
One apricot and nine peach samples contained fenthion residues above the maximum residue limit which was “unacceptable from the perspective of acute or short-term nutritional risk,” the report said.
Fenthion is an organophosphorous insecticide for use in field and post-harvest treatments of fruits and vegetables.
By September 2012, the APVMA had published health guidelines for a number of fenthion uses, including on stone fruit, stating, “The APVMA cannot be satisfied that these uses of fenthion would not present an undue safety risk to persons using anything containing its residues,” It must be deleted.”
After completing a review of fenthion in October 2014, all horticultural uses were withdrawn except for tropical fruits with inedible skins, which have now been discontinued.
The chief executive of pesticide industry advocacy group Croplife Australia, Matthew Causey, said the maximum residue rules were an early warning system.
“They have huge safety buffers built into them, and they are usually set tens or hundreds of times lower than the tolerable daily intake, which in turn is set at a minimum of 100 times lower than any level that has been shown to have any effect in long-term exposure experiments,” Kossi said. The long-term”.
“While a one-time breach does not present any immediate safety issue, it must be investigated and addressed immediately to ensure product safety in the short, medium and long term.”
The documents reveal that Joyce was pressured by the National Farmers Federation (NFF) against the scheme, while his department said the program would provide “valuable feedback” on states and territories’ approaches to controlling chemical waste.
The fund said farmers would end up bearing the cost after the first five years of government funding.
“While the NFF agrees that it is often important to monitor agricultural products, the value of this program remains unclear from an industry perspective,” she said.
“The NFF has had concerns expressed by members regarding poor program design, lack of integration with existing initiatives (including industry-driven warranty plans) and also from the perspective of another cost that is likely to be passed on to the industry without prior consultation.”
A spokesperson for Joyce reiterated reasons made publicly in 2015, which say the Commonwealth has no authority to enforce compliance with domestic use of agricultural chemicals.
“This responsibility rests with countries and regions,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson added that the Ministry of Agriculture was informed at the time that the studies were conducted on the basis of limited samples and that the methodology used was in its experimental stage.
Joyce killed her with a handwritten note: “This is being closed.”
The scheme was canceled in the 2014-15 budget. Instead, $8 million was redirected to improving farmers’ access to agrochemicals.
A recent independent review of pesticide regulations recommended a national monitoring plan.
Causey said Australia has a world-leading, modern and well-developed regulatory regime for pesticides and their use, ensuring the safety of agricultural products for domestic consumers and export markets.
He said Croplife was never provided with the results of the pilot, but officials noted that it generally confirmed very strong compliance by growers with the maximum residue rules.
Results were also provided to groups of farmers for specific fruits.
“Next, CropLife advocated for the federal government that resources should be prioritized and targeted to ensure improvements to the regulatory system to address MRL violations, including the Nationally Coordinated Pesticide Control System,” Kosi said, adding that the administration had failed to take such action. Suggestion.
The NFF Forum pointed out that the results were nearly a decade ago and that a lot has changed, including chemicals like fenthion being pulled from use.
Surveys conducted by the Victorian Department of Agriculture between 2015 and 2021 found that 7.3% of 1,502 samples had unacceptable residue levels.
“It is important for Australian farmers to provide safe, high-quality products and the appropriate use of the chemicals produced is something they take very seriously,” said NFF Acting Chief Executive Officer Charlie Thomas.
“Australia has a world-class regulatory regime for the safe and effective use of agricultural chemicals, managed by the Commonwealth Regulatory Authority and state and territory bodies,” he said.
“NFF supports the use of systems that keep chemical waste within reasonable and approved levels to support consumer confidence in our world-class products.”