UK tests for pesticides in food 'weak'

The head of a national food safety body has admitted that Britain's system for testing whether food contains potentially toxic pesticides is too weak and needs a major overhaul.

The admission by Dr Ian Brown, chairman of the Government's Pesticides Residues Committee, follows damning criticism of the UK's policies on testing from European Commission health experts.

The criticisms included the revelation that Britain's safety authorities – the Food Standards Agency and the Pesticides Safety Directorate – have the lowest annual rate of food testing of any European country, at only three samples per 100,000 people. Countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, France, Ireland and Sweden test between 2,743 and 8,320 food samples every year, compared to just 1,575 in the UK.

In one highly critical report, the Commission also accused the UK of breaching EU rules on testing; of failing to take enforcement action against retailers and suppliers who sell contaminated produce; and of failing to act quickly enough to remove contaminated produce off the shelves.

Although Britain tests for a wider range of pesticides than most other EU countries, it often only tests a handful of samples every few years yet regularly finds food which breaks pesticide safety limits. In 2000, only 50 carrots were tested, even though one sample was so contaminated by an organophosphate that it broke safety limits for toddlers. Friends of the Earth claims the UK tests only one banana in 100 million for pesticides.

Dr Brown said he accepted many of the criticisms, and called on the Government to increase the meagre £2m budget for food testing. The UK's testing regime was neither "broad enough or deep enough," he said.

"We need to analyse more samples and we need to target our sampling to make it appropriate to our diet."

Dr Brown, an expert in toxicology and occupational health at Southampton University Hospital, said adults were very unlikely to be exposed to risky levels of pesticide residues in food. But there was "cause for concern" about the threat to young children.

He said was he "particularly worried" about the potential risks where food was contaminated by several similar chemicals, such as different forms of heavily restricted organophosphate pesticide, which could combine to create a "cocktail effect".

His committee is expected to press ministers this summer to agree to a tougher and larger testing regime. The time lag between testing and publicising the results, which can currently take up to three months, also needed to be cut dramatically, he said.