From the field safely onto the plate
Harmful fungi and wild herbs can damage crops, impair their growth or contaminate the harvest. If they find their way to consumers through food, they can pose a health risk under certain circumstances. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids in ragwort, for example, have a carcinogenic effect, and ergot alkaloids can cause nausea, cardiovascular problems or reproductive disorders. The BfR assesses the health risks of undesired and naturally occurring ingredients and develops analysis methods to detect them in foods and feeds. To protect crops from fungus infestation and contamination with wild herbs, plant protection products are used in addition to natural and technical agricultural measures. Because there is no effective substance to combat every fungus, however, good agricultural practice is of greatest importance to produce healthy foods. The BfR assesses the health risks to ensure that the use of plant protection products is safe for consumers, users and uninvolved third parties. Only when pesticides do not pose a health risk may they be authorised in Germany. "Many people are not aware what health risks can emanate from naturally occurring plants and fungi. Consumers are often more afraid of pesticide residues," according to Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). At the International Green Week fair from 16 to 25 January 2015, the BfR is showing at Stand 124 in Hall 3.2 (Event Farm) what plant diseases look like and providing an insight into its risk assessment of pesticides.
The nature trail at the BfR stand shows what can grow on fields apart from crops. Visitors learn to differentiate between various types of wheat - treated with plant protection products, infested with mould fungus and contaminated with wild herbs. The poisonous ragwort is also on display. Visitors are given tips on how to protect themselves and their families against mould fungi and poisonous pyrrolizidine alkaloids in foods and how to deal with meadows and pastures infested with ragwort. As plant protection products are the focus of consumers’ risk perception, the BfR also explains what the procedure is when making a health assessment of pesticides or deriving maximum residue levels. Visitors to the BfR stand can also take part in a quiz at the BfR wheel of fortune which deals with all aspects of the topic “From the field safely onto the plate”. There is also a search game for children.
Harmful fungi can produce mycotoxins which endanger consumer health. Mycotoxins are poisonous metabolic products of fungi which can cause nausea and vomiting as well as serious health damage. Examples of mycotoxin-forming mould fungi are ergot fungus, Fusarium and sooty mould. Mould fungus can also occur after the harvest during storage and processing. High cereal moisture levels favour infestation. In addition to important preventive measures, such as selection of the correct crop rotation and agricultural measures, plant protection products can be used to combat mould. Animal feed contaminated with mould fungus can also damage animal health. The National Reference Laboratory for Mycotoxins, which is located within the BfR, develops and validates methods for the detection of mycotoxins in foods and feeds.
There are more than 500 different pyrrolizidine alkaloids which occur in over 6,000 plant species. They grow mainly on pastures and fallow land and make an important contribution towards biodiversity as wild herbs. Plants containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids belong to the composite (Asteraceae), borage or forget-me-not (Boraginaceae) and legume (Fabaceae) families. In Germany, for example, ragwort, common groundsel and viper’s bugloss are indigenous. Contamination of foods and feeds with pyrrolizidine alkaloids is not desired as they can cause cancer. They have been detected in herbal teas, cereals, lettuces, leaf vegetables, honeys and feeds. The BfR develops analysis methods for the detection of pyrrolizidine alkaloids in various foods and feeds.
Pesticides are used to protect crops from harmful organisms such as fungi, wild herbs and harmful insects and secure the harvest yield and food quality. 775 different plant protection products were authorised in Germany in November 2014. These products contained a total of 276 different active substances. Plant protection products are split into different groups, depending on their effects: there are herbicides to control wild herbs, insecticides for insects, fungicides for fungi, molluscicides for snails, acaricides for mites, rodenticides for rodents and growth regulators for the control of biological processes.
Even when pesticides are used properly, as prescribed, residues can still remain on cereals, fruit and vegetables. Within the scope of the European process of approving the active substances used in pesticides and establishing maximum residue levels, the BfR assesses the health risks posed by the active substances and proposes maximum residue levels. Within the EU-wide process, maximum levels are never set any higher than required by good agricultural practice, thus complying with the minimisation principle for the use of plant protection products. If these maximum levels are adhered to, no health risk through residues of active pesticide substances is to be assumed according to the latest level of scientific knowledge; if they are exceeded, the food may not be marketed.
Many consumers assume that no pesticide residues may be contained in foods. This is the result of a representative survey of the German population on the subject “Pesticide Residues in Food” conducted on behalf of the BfR. Although pesticide residues in food are regarded by consumers as a relatively big health problem, the BfR is not aware of any reports of impaired health caused by pesticide residues in food. Against this background, the BfR is providing information on plant protection products at the Green Week fair to enable consumers to make a realistic estimation of the risks.
About the BfR
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.