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Food safety issue or regulatory compliance issue, asks Richard Bennett

Pauline Mak 2011, (CC BY 2.0)

Photo: Pauline Mak / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Growers are always quick to make the distinction. There’s a big difference between foodborne illness due to microbiological contamination and exceeding the Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) for an agricultural chemical. The smallest traces of a human pathogen can lead to much suffering, even death, but the many-fold human safety buffer built in to the regulatory pesticide limits means that many, many kilograms, if not tonnes, of offending fruit or vegetable would need to be consumed before ill effects from the pesticide are suffered.

In a case reported this week, the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court has decided that residue noncompliance is a criminal offence as well. A northern Victorian quince grower who sells at the Melbourne Wholesale Market and whose fruit samples have exceeded a MRL on five previous occasions has been given a two year good behaviour bond without conviction, is required to contribute $1000 to the court fund and must also pay service costs.

The farm worker who sprayed the chemical propiconazole — which is not approved for use on quinces — also received an infringement notice.

Victorian DEPI statewide chemicals specialist Steven Field said it was the first time anyone has been prosecuted under this particular section of the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals (Control of Use) Act 1992. Steven did an excellent job on ABC Rural Radio this week explaining the distinction between chemicals and food safety but made it clear that regardless of the safety buffer, MRLs are in place for good reason and must be abided by, even if the likelihood of actual illness associated with exceeding a MRL is highly unlikely.

Growers can continue to argue the distinction but consumers see chemical contamination as avoidable and a health issue regardless, and so does the law. The only thing that’s surer is that this grower will have his fruit tested again next year.

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Image credit: Pauline Mak 2011, (CC BY 2.0)