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Pesticides Keep Pestering Us

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 1, 2007

Just when we thought that everybody was focused on pathogens on produce, it turns out that pesticides are creeping back into the public eye. We ran a piece entitled pesticide Spraying Gets More Attention that was quickly followed by Pundit’s Mailbag — Green Acres Is The Place To Be?!? — both focused around the intersection of pesticide use and people, not so much on the issue of pesticides on the produce.

In Europe, however, the pesticide issue is playing out differently. In the May 2007 issue of Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, Marc DeNaeyer, Managing Partner, TROFI in The Netherlands and Pundit contributor here, here, here and here, wrote a guest column filling in for longtime columnist Robert Zwartkruis while he is recuperating. Here is what Marc told us:

Then there is the specific issue of Maximum Residue Limits (MRL), which Greenpeace has made top-of-mind for every operator in Europe. Greenpeace regularly takes samples off the shelves and tests them for residue levels. It has communicated the results aggressively and directly to the consumers, putting the German retailers on the bench of the accused. This in turn has had a major effect: German retailers — in particular German discounters (Aldi, Lidl) — - have taken drastic actions to avoid future criticism. What until recently was perceived the “dumping ground” of Europe now has arguably the strictest food safety standards worldwide!

Non-produce crises, such as mad cow’s disease, swine fever, dioxin chicken and so on, initially led the European Union during the ‘90s to implement stricter and mandatory food safety and hygiene codes. This was complemented by stricter codes from the retailers. Effectively, all fresh produce inside the European Union — imported or locally grown — is now by law fully traceable upwards and downwards and no retailer will take any more fruit that is not EurepGAP certified, will no longer use service providers that are not BRC (widely covered recently by the Perishable Pundit) or IFS certified.

So we are all perfectly accredited, but as certain as death follows life, there is no 100 percent guarantee of safe food. All you need is a grower using other pesticides than he records in his spray diary (or climate simply forces him to save the crop and thus residue levels upon arrival exceed MRLs); all you need is contamination of an adjacent field with a different crop on it and so on.

Produce is as safe as it has ever been, but Greenpeace’s actions have highlighted that the E.U. regulations are far from harmonized. That means residue limits vary from one member state to another, and as long as the European Union has not harmonized the MRL, each member state must enforce its own laws: So if you want to market produce inside the European Union, you’d have to have it tested for every single market. That is tantamount to taking your driving exam 27 times…

Furthermore, there is still room for discussion, whether the MRLs are set conservatively or not. The European Union believes an excess MRL poses no health risk. Greenpeace warns that a cocktail of various pesticides can pose a risk even if all individual pesticides are within limits. The only known fact today is no one has died due to pesticides residue.

The argument can be made either way these days and with all the “spin” and near hysteria and fearmongering, we are still far from a level-headed debate. For the moment, there is only one party speaking out, and it is not the fresh produce industry!

German discounters are now arbitrarily enforcing their own MRLs, which are set at anywhere between 33 percent and 50 percent of the MRL. Today we must have each lot tested for 500 active ingredients — at a cost of €200 per test — and only then does a discounter decide if it buys or not. Remember the days we just fought over price?

This has changed the buying dynamics tremendously, and the effects will be strategically interesting at the very least. Does an operator now pursue a fully integrated supply chain on one hand and is a discounter willing to hand over its strength of flexible spot buying on the other? The answer will likely be that the solutions will be different for each operator and retailer. What will happen is that no longer just U.K. buyers, but now all E.U. buyers, will enforce much stricter codes in the global quest for fresh produce.

For all of you readers who wonder whether 1/3 of the MRL is at all possible, the answer is a simple: YES. Growers from around the world have proven this for months. The problem only arises when, prior or during harvest, products need to be sprayed due to rain, and then one can forget about meeting the target.

As a result, a discounter today in Germany will then switch into a different origin, a different variety or de-list the product altogether. The rules of the game have once again changed: This is EU-27 in ’07. Welcome!

Right now in the U.S. everyone is focused on food safety in the sense of looking for E. coli 0157:H7, Salmonella and so forth. Yet, even if these issues are “settled” one day, it seems reasonable to believe that a public, now more highly sensitized to issues regarding food safety, will be open to the claims of organizations such as Greenpeace.

We’ve noted here at the Pundit that, despite the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, British chains have been much more aggressive than American chains in trying to dictate food safety standards.

Marc sees this spreading to German discounters and on to the rest of the Continent.

Yet many European retailers — Delhaize, Ahold, Aldi, Tengelmann, now Tesco — have footholds in the U.S. Is it reasonable to think they will refrain from enforcing similar standards in America? If these European retailers do try to import European standards to the U.S., won’t American chains feel the need to respond?

In which case is Marc simply describing the state of the European Union in 2007 or is he describing the future we will be wrestling with in America in 2009?

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