The use of synthetic pesticides is not allowed in organic production, but traces of synthetic pesticides are regularly detected in organic food. To safeguard the integrity of organic production, organic certifiers are obliged to investigate the causes for pesticide residues on organic food, entailing high costs to the organic sector. Such residues can have various origins, including both fraud and unintentional contamination from the environment. Because the knowledge about contamination from environmental sources is scattered, this review provides an overview of pathways for unintentional and technically unavoidable contamination of organic food with synthetic pesticides in Europe. It shows that synthetic pesticides are widely present in all environmental compartments. They originate from applications in the region, in distant areas or from historical use. Transition into the food chain has been demonstrated by various studies. However, large uncertainties remain regarding the true pesticide contamination of the environment, their dynamics and the contamination risks for the food chain. Organic operators can take certain measures to reduce the risks of pesticide contamination of their products, but a certain extent of pesticide contamination is technically unavoidable. The present paper indicates that (i) a potential risk for pesticide residues exists on all organic crops and thus organic operators cannot meet a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach regarding pesticide residues at the moment. (ii) Applying a residue concentration threshold to distinguish between cases of fraud and unavoidable contamination for all pesticides is not adequate given the variability of contamination. More reliable answers can be obtained with a case-by-case investigation, where evidence for all possible origins of pesticide residues is collected and the likelihood of unavoidable contamination and fraud are estimated. Ultimately, for organic certification bodies and control authorities it will remain a challenge to determine whether a pesticide residue is due to neglect of production rules or technically unavoidable.
Mirjam Schleiffer, Bernhard Speiser