Food safety and quality

Maximum residue limits for pesticide on rice discussed at WTO event


FAO officers presented the publication, Understanding international harmonization of pesticide maximum residue limits with Codex standards, at the margins of a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting today, that of the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, also called the SPS Committee.

Vittorio Fattori, FAO Food Safety Officer, explained that despite longstanding efforts towards international harmonization of allowable thresholds for pesticide residues in foods, differences in national implementation of maximum residue limits (MRLs) continue to exist, raising questions with regard to their impact on trade. To shed light on this complex issue, FAO conducted an analysis, using rice as a case study, he said.

Many pesticide MRLs registered at national level do not have corresponding Codex MRLs, Sarah Nájera, FAO Food Safety Specialist, reported, referring to the internationally established standards, guidelines and codes of practice within the Codex Alimentarius. At the same time, she noted, the majority of Codex pesticides MRLs in rice are not adopted at national level. She mentioned that “the level of harmonization with Codex pesticides MRLs in rice varies greatly across countries and regions.”   

Andrea Zimmerman, FAO Economist, explained the economic analysis, which was conducted using a gravity model. She said: “MRLs can affect trade in two ways: MRLs stricter than Codex in the importing country are associated with relatively more rice imports, possibly reflecting strong consumer food safety awareness in those countries. Whereas, if MRLs on the importer side are stricter than those on the exporter side, then exporters may incur additional costs in order to comply with the importing country’s applied standards and dampen their exports to the markets with stricter MRLs.” She noted that low- and middle-income countries account for more than 96 percent of global rice production and a similar share of world rice consumption.

Fattori summed up the reasons behind the various levels of harmonization. He said that “considerable variation has emerged in how countries are aligned with the FAO/WHO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR)/Codex process for the development and establishment of pesticide MRLs.” He added that some of the major differences in MRLs and residue definitions are due to, for example, the consideration of different data for the various countries/region and to inconsistency among the commodity descriptions in different countries. Automatic harmonization with Codex MRLs is not the norm because such practice is not embedded in national legislations. For MRLs not established at national level, the default practice is, in general, to set a default value, usually at the limit of quantification, or not to establish any tolerance level or MRL.

The session, moderated by Marlynne Hopper of the Standards and Trade Development Facility Secretariat, concluded with a brief discussion of the findings of this study and the authors of the study hope this analysis will stimulate international dialogue to improve harmonization. Attention should also be given to low- and middle-income country needs for better and more active participation in the Codex standard-setting process.

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