Pesticides are used to kill or control harmful or unwanted organisms, such as pests and weeds, and to improve and safeguard agricultural yields and the quality of agricultural products.

There are no benefits without risks. Pesticides can have unwanted adverse effects on human health and the environment when not used appropriately. While there are alternatives, such as organic farming, agriculture will still need to rely on pesticide use to meet consumer demand for food products.

A whole programme of initiatives and monitoring is in place to ensure that pesticides are used sustainably in line with established limits, and that the products on the market are safe.

Food products being placed on the market are sampled and tested according to an EU-wide plan. This plan is multi-annual, with a three-year-running sampling of food commodities which need to be tested in each member state. 

The Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority establishes a scientific monitoring programme on an annual basis composed of sampling in line with the EU’s coordinated programme of tests. Random sampling covers all products whether local or imported.

The monitoring programme is supplemented by a national programme of testing that targets risk areas identified from year to year. The sample size is established at law to ensure the monitoring is representative. The procedure adopted by the MCCAA for the collection of samples and for all the follow-up action is documented and regularly audited by external auditors as part of the authority’s ISO certification.

Samples for testing are collected in line with an established procedure and are sent to a European accredited laboratory. Established systems ensure traceability, integrity of the product and an anonymous coding system to make sure test results are unbiased.

A whole programme of initiatives and monitoring is in place to ensure that … the products on the market are safe

Results are communicated to the farmer so that the necessary action can be taken. Action has also been taken by the authority in the past months to reduce the time between sample collection and feedback given to the farmer.

To further support the control and enforcement procedures, users of pesticides are required to undergo a course, validated and approved by the MCCAA, on sustainable use. The user must complete the course successfully to be certified as a ‘professional user’. 

There are also plans to make it an offence to sell specific pesticides to individuals not certified as professional users, thus tightening access to these products. This will continue to strengthen the regulatory framework now in place.

The authority, in collaboration with environment and Gozo ministries, is also providing pesticide equipment testing to ensure that pesticide application is accurately dosed and distributed.

The MCCAA is fully committed to working with all stakeholders to ensure the sustainable use of pesticides and to implement ongoing improvement. During the last three years the MCCAA has invested extensively in capacity building to effectively regulate and monitor the use of pesticides. Human resources have been doubled to ensure that consumer welfare is enhanced.

Scientific and professional staff at the MCCAA are now drafting a five-year plan to reduce risks and impacts of pesticide use on human health and the environment and to encourage the development of integrated pest management and alternative approaches or techniques.

This will include, among others, improving the training of professional users, inspection of pesticide application equipment, and limitation of pesticide use in sensitive areas.

The plan will focus on improvingstrategies taking into consideration best practices which can be implemented in Malta.

The document will be issued for consultation and targeted sessions will be organised to ensure that the measures meet the needs and expectations of stakeholders. Interested parties who wish to provide input in this process may send an e-mail at consultations.mccaa@mccaa.org.mt.

What are MRLs?

MRLs are the maximum pesticide residue limits legally permissible for all food, both locally grown and imported.

Although the thought of having pesticide residues lingering on food may be alarming, it is important to understand that the final MRL value set gives a very high level of safety for consumers.

MRL values follow strict EU regulations. They are based on studies on products exposed to pesticides using Good Agricultural Practice (GAP), which ensures food products do not have an adverse effect on consumer health.

The values are set well below any level that could have an adverse effect on the health of consumers, including infants and the unborn. Thus, when a residue is found above the set MRL, this does not automatically mean it is a health risk.

An MRL value also takes into consideration the acceptable daily intake of the residues if these were present in food, based on factors such as diet, body weight and long-term exposure.

The process of determining an MRL for a particular pesticide takes into strict consideration all available scientific information and risk assessments, so as to protect the consumer from potential risks. The MRL acts as an indicator of correct use of pesticides.

Edward Xuereb is Director General, Technical Regulations Division, MCCAA.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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