Divergence between media reporting and scientific assessment leads to scepticism among consumers
If pesticides are used in the production of foods, such products have a bad reputation among consumers. This is confirmed by a representative survey conducted by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in February 2016. Almost half of the respondents believe that the safety and quality of foods is declining overall. They see pesticides and the industrialisation of agriculture as the reasons for this decline. "One third of interviewees were especially concerned about the detection of the pesticide glyphosate in breast milk and in urine reported in the press", BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel said in his comments on the findings of the survey. "According to our latest analysis, no glyphosate is actually detectable in breast milk. From a scientific point of view, the substance is to be expected in urine in low concentrations. Residues up to the approved limit value for foods are permitted and can therefore be ingested." Viewed in this light, the recently detected glyphosate residue in beer is not an unexpected finding. In general, the use of pesticides in foods and an accompanying occurrence of residues in food products is permitted by the legislation passed by the legislative body. In contrast, two thirds of respondents think that such residue in food is not permissible.
Already in 2010, the BfR commissioned a survey in Germany on the subject of pesticides. At the time, it was found that many consumers do not know that pesticide residue is permissible up to the relevant legal residue limit value which must be defined in such a way that the safety of the food is warranted. The BfR took the controversial public debate, begun in 2013, on the health impact assessment of glyphosate in the procedure for renewing approval of glyphosate as an active ingredient as an opportunity to survey consumers on the topic of pesticides again in February 2016. On the one hand, the goal was to probe the attitudes of the public on pesticides in general and glyphosate in particular. On the other hand, the BfR wanted to establish whether the population’s factual knowledge has increased as a result of the frequent appearance of the topic in the media.
The result of the new survey of a representative sample of 1,000 persons has now shown that the wrong assumption that pesticide residue in foods are generally banned is still very common. In addition, the vast majority of the population in Germany holds the opinion that food produced using pesticides is rather toxic but cheap, whereas foods produced without pesticides are seen as healthy and tasty but expensive.
The survey confirms the assumption that consumers largely derive their knowledge about pesticide residue contained in foods from the media. Thus 70 % of the roughly 1,000 respondents stated that they had read, seen or heard something about the subject in the media over the last two years. However, only about half of them remember what subject areas were discussed in the media reports. One quarter of respondents only grasp the topic of pesticides in general and diffuse terms, whereas another quarter cannot recall the contents covered by the media at all. Only 9 % of the population remember media reports discussing a health risk.
When asked about the ratio of benefits versus risks of the use of pesticides in food production, two thirds of respondents say that the risks outweigh the benefits. In line with this belief, a clear majority of 65 % state that they avoid foods they know or suspect may contain pesticide residue. This means that a majority of respondents take a critical stance towards pesticide residue.
However, residue of approved pesticides in foods is permissible up to the legal limit value and safe in terms of its health effects. It is true that humans and animals can ingest small amounts of, for example, glyphosate via food and feed. However, since glyphosate is excreted quickly by the body, it is to be expected that traces of this active ingredient are found in in the urine of humans and animals. The glyphosate concentrations detected in urine so far do not indicate a level of contamination that could result in adverse health effects on consumers. Thanks to continually improving analysis methods, smaller and smaller quantities of substances can be detected, down to individual molecules. In the case of dioxins, for example, the detection threshold fell from ppm (parts per million = 10-6 = 0.000001, in the year 1960 to a precision range of ppq (parts per quadrillion = 10-15 = 0.000000000000001 (see graph (PDF file,109.26 KB) in German).
As regards the statutory regulation of pesticides, more than 80 % of respondents want consumer organisations, non-government organisations as well as the agricultural industry and consumers to play an important role. Only just over 70 % think that the government authorities at the national and European level that are currently legally mandated to regulate pesticide residue should play an important part in this area.
The results of the survey reinforce the BfR’s view that the public needs to be even more comprehensively informed in future about the fundamentals and results of scientific risk assessment of pesticides.
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) in Germany. 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.