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Carine de Clercq:

“Residue contents were ten times higher in the past”

To prevent potatoes, fruit and vegetables from having high residue contents, fresh products regularly have to be tested by means of European legislation and regulations. The residue laboratory Primoris in Zwijnaarde, Belgium, is such a place that analyses fresh products, although the company doesn’t just do so in Belgium.

“We work in the manner expected of us according to European legislation,” says CEO Carine de Clercq. “We have long lists that describe how samples have to be prepared per product. Take, for example, bananas. That piece of fruit has to be examined with its peel. ‘But you don’t eat the peel, do you?’, you might think. And you’d be right, but because MRL (Maximum Residue Limits) is a limit value based on good agrarian practices, the peel therefore also has to be analysed.”

Carine de Clercq.

Maximum Residue Limit
MRLs are the legally allowed maximum residues of a substance in or on foods, as in the banana example. That limit is determined by means of a number of field tests. Primoris examines whether the residue contents remain within legal norms for various parties. “We do that for the entire food chain, such as producer’s organisations, investigative organisations, trade companies, processors, retailers and consumer organisations,” Carine continues. “When an importer imports a mango or passionfruit from Latin America, that person has to make sure the product meets requirements. If it doesn’t, it could result in a fine, a recall of the product or the destruction of it.”

Ten times as high
To prevent a recall or other problems in the country of origin, it’s better to have the fresh produce tested for residues at their source. Sixteen years ago, Primoris was founded in Belgium, and other branches followed throughout the world. In 2010, Primoris opened a residue laboratory in Bulgaria. “These activities were recently expanded into microbiology-virology,” the CEO says. “Especially the determination of the Norovirus and Hepatitis A virus is new in the Balkans. Similar virus contaminations are the result of poorer hygiene, as with manually picking berries. Five years ago, Primoris started a residue laboratory in Colombia. Much fruit is exported to Europe from this country. By analysing at the source, you prevent problems in the country of arrival. Adjusting primary production, in other words guidance to the growers, based on residue content is quicker due to the interaction with the laboratory, which is nearby. Both the lab in Bulgaria and in Colombia are accredited by Belac.”

Thanks to stricter legislation and inspections, the residue content in Western Europe has declined sharply in recent decades, according to the CEO. “In the past, values of residue contents were ten times as high,” she says. “Especially supermarkets are stricter when it comes to enforcing regulations than in the past, and they often have even more requirements. These are not scientifically substantiated, but give the consumer the sense of additional protection, such as, for example, a maximum of four residues on an apple or 70 percent of the MRL.” According to Carine, most surpluses occur in products imported to Europe. “That makes sense,” she says. “Import products have to meet European legislation, even if the used pesticide is acknowledged in the country of origin.”

No danger
Although it’s not necessarily dangerous, 2.2 per cent of fruit, vegetables and grains exceeded its maximum residue limits in Belgium in 2016. “Most of the surpluses in Belgian products are found in fresh herbs, soft fruit, carrot and root vegetables,” Carine says. “These are often small cultivations, for which few pesticides are acknowledged. It’s important to know that an MRL surplus doesn’t automatically mean there’s a toxicity problem. An MRL is a limit for good agrarian practices, and is usually below the toxicity limit by a factor of 10 to 100. For non-acknowledged pesticides, there’s a limit of 0.01 mg/kg or parts per million (ppm) in Europe. For comparison: it would be as much as a 40-centimetre slat across the circumference of the globe. That’s very little, but easily traceable by specialised labs.”

The technology to analyse residues has made enormous strides in the past ten years. “Considering our food is becoming ever more global, and increasing imports, it’s necessary as a laboratory to not just find the pesticides acknowledged in our own country or in the EU,” Carine says. “Pesticides used globally are also important to analyse. While a residue lab found 50 pesticides with a lower limit of 1 ppm in the past, labs nowadays analyse 500 residues up to 0.01 ppm.” According to the CEO, not all pesticides are easily analysed. “It depends on the chemical characteristics of the molecule,” she continues. “Molecules such as glyphosate, ethefon or paraquat require more technological effort. But the developers of analysing equipment constantly ensure improvements.”

The woman behind Primoris therefore also expects the interpretation of analysed results to change in coming years. “Every residue is now tested for MRLs separately. In future, we’ll look at the effect of all residues combined more often,” the CEO says. “This is mostly important for residues that function similarly, and that show a synergistic effect. The effect of residues with other harmful substances combined (mycotoxins, heavy metals, antibiotics) will also be evaluated. The application won’t occur in the next few years, but scientific projects regarding this are currently underway on a European level. That way, food safety won’t be judged per category of harmful substance, but based on all harmful substances combined.”

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Carine de Clercq

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