Dangerous levels of chemical residues taint food in Greece

Both the European Union’s program for monitoring chemical residues and the corresponding national program show that Greeks consume considerable quantities of agricultural chemicals. While the EU is subsidizing ecologically sound farming methods, Greeks are breaking EU rules and contaminating the environment. Though only 7 percent of the samples examined by the EU program contained residues in excess of the permitted limit, half of the remainder were just on the safety limit, and in the corresponding national program residues were found in 30 percent of the samples. And the limits are highly questionable, according to Panayiotis Athanasopoulos, assistant professor of food science and technology at the Agricultural University of Athens. There should be no detectable residues, but we ingest agricultural chemicals when we eat. That’s the price we pay for protection from plant pests and diseases and for increased production. «And for the impunity of the producers,» comments Efthalia Mourkidou, who teaches in the agricultural chemicals laboratory of the Agriculture Department at Thessaloniki University. Of the 173 samples analyzed by the EU program, 13 contained excessive residues of agricultural chemicals. Another 34 had residues at levels the human body can tolerate, more than half of which (19) were just at the safety limit. The national program for monitoring agricultural chemical residues in food presents a worse picture, with just 30.2 percent of the fruit, vegetables and cereal samples containing agricultural chemical residues at or below the permitted level. The results for processed food were no better, with 101 out of 161 samples containing residues at or below the permitted level, and 89 of the samples contained residues of one or more chemicals above the permitted level. Even when residues are below the permitted level, this won’t guarantee the absence of problems. The levels are calculated taking into account average consumption by a person of average health and resistance. But people in southern Europe eat large quantities of fruit and vegetables, and children, adolescents and the aged are vulnerable, as Athanasopoulos notes. The fact that many samples contained residues lower than the permitted level is no excuse. On the contrary, it should be a matter of serious concern, because such products are permitted to go on sale, and growers who use excessive amounts of chemicals or who fail to observe time restrictions do not realize the consequences of their actions. Mourkidou explains: «Farmers don’t care because they don’t get punished. Law 721/77 prohibits the sale of foodstuffs containing illegal substances, such as agricultural chemicals. It stipulates that such products be destroyed at the producer’s expense. But have you ever heard of produce being destroyed? And there are very few inspections. Not that you can ever inspect everything that is produced, but if people know there are regular inspections, they are more careful.» According to Athanasopoulos, farmers not only use excessive amounts of chemicals, but when they have finished spraying, they often dump the remainder of the chemicals in a corner of a field, unaware that such chemicals are dangerous poisons.