1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Toxic chemicals in our food

Irene Banos Ruiz
August 9, 2017

The ongoing scandal over contaminated eggs has raised serious concerns about food safety. How can we ensure the quality of products we buy - and eat? And how do illegal substances end up on our plates at all?

Ausstellung "Food Revolution 5.0" im Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg.
Image: MKG FoodRevolution 5.0

Most people would avoid deliberately eating pesticides - but they don't realize that they're eating them without knowing it much of the time.

With revelations of a highly toxic insecticide recently found in millions of eggs for sale in Germany and the Netherlands, and as the egg scandal spreads to other European countries such as France and the United Kingdom, it's a legitimate question to ask: How much of my food inadvertently contains toxic chemicals?

Add to the discussion how increasing quantities of fake and illegal pesticides are being produced globally, as the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) has warned.

The European Union's food safety watchdog also recently indicated that almost half of the food Europeans eat contains traces of pesticides - although in most cases, not at levels harmful to people.

Since such substances are colorless and odorless, consumers have no easy means to identify whether their food contains toxic substances. We rely on a regulatory framework that is spread thin for the current scale of industrialized agriculture. Tracing back our meals' ingredients is a tricky task.

Scandals break only once a toxic substance has been measured - so how much tainted food slips through?

There is only one solution, experts say: stricter regulation.

Eggs from the Netherlands
Most eggs are traceable thanks to the numbers printed on themImage: Imago/Hollandse Hoogte

Toxicity in our meals

Despite half of the meals in Europe found to contain pesticides, in that case only less than 3 percent of the samples analyzed exceeded the maximum residue levels permitted under EU law and would therefore represent a risk.

However, about 7 percent of food imports from countries outside the EU contain levels of pesticide residues exceeding EU permitted amounts.

But together with pesticides, other toxic substances such as dioxins or aflatoxins also manage to sneak onto our plates.

Such unwanted products can find their way into our food supply in a number of ways, a press officer from the German Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) told DW.

Food producers may not have fulfilled hygienic standards, animal farms may incorrectly apply a legal veterinary drug, or food producers could misuse illegal substances, among other ways.

Of the same opinion is Britta Schautz, a nutritionist with the consumer organization for Berlin (Verbraucherzentrale Berlin e.V.).

"Toxic substances can get in your food along the whole way - from farm to fork," Schautz told DW. "Illegal substances can be put into the food on purpose - to give it a better look, for instance."

The insecticide fipronil for example, though not allowed in the food production chain, seems to have been improperly used to treat lice in chicken on egg farms in the Netherlands.

Infographic pesticide residues in food

Regulating risks

In low- and middle-income countries, pesticides are among the leading causes of death by self-poisoning, according to the World Health Organization.

Pesticides, by their nature as being designed to kill pests, are intrinsically toxic, and end up in the environment - a main reason their use requires strong regulation.

The EU has banned pesticides that are highly toxic to humans and animals (like bee-killing neonicotinoids), or that remain for long periods of time in the environment (like DDT). The EU has also set maximum limits for pesticide residues in food and water, based on scientific research establishing what can be tolerated.

Beyond human error and isolated incidents of deliberate misuse, global smuggling of illegal and fake pesticides entering the EU, backed by organized criminal groups, is growing. The EU has restricted such pesticides because they contain chemicals harmful to human health and the environment.The EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) revealed that such trafficking costs about 1.3 billion euros ($1.4 billion) for the 28 EU member countries per year - with Germany at the top of that list.

Last Friday, customs officers in Greece seized more than 700 kilograms (1,500 pounds) of illegal pesticides originating from Turkey.

Christiane Huxdorff, a campaigner for Greenpeace's Food for Life campaign, pointed to a lack of funding for adequate food surveillance by the authorities.

"The scandals will keep coming here and there as long as food is produced in such mass quantities, and there is not enough money to look for quality," Huxdorff told DW.

Looking for pesticides

Beside the legislative framework, the EU carries out annual pesticide monitoring programs.

Specialists select a certain number of food products and analyze them, looking for the presence of more than 770 pesticides. Such analysis in many cases led to implementation of stronger control measures.

National authorities also carry out regular controls over food quality - and, in addition, every product goes through a security process in the production chain before reaching supermarkets, Schautz said.

However, experts cannot identify substances they are not looking for, Huxdorff pointed out. In the case of the eggs contaminated with fipronil, there is still not clear answer on how authorities were tipped off.

So we may have been eating tainted eggs for some time already, Huxdorff said. And this takes us to the scary issue of how much contaminated food goes unnoticed - and ends up in our stomachs.

But don't panic, Schautz said. Food in Europe is under very strict control, and such cases remain exceptions.

Consumers are trapped

Large-scale, industrial farming makes it very difficult for consumers to control what they eat and to know where their food does come from.  

"We have to get away from industrialized agriculture," Huxdorff said. From growing crops, to animal farming and animal product production, even food processing, "everything has to be more diversified instead of having always big companies behind the whole process."

Alternatives to pesticides

Consumers must also take note of official warnings and recalls, BVL's spokesperson said.

In Germany, warnings and recalls are published on a central online platform - being constantly updated with new cases of toxic substances found in food.

Of course, ideally contaminated food would never reach the consumer.

"A higher frequency of food control before it gets into the supermarket is very important to diminish the extent of consequences," Schautz said.

She highlighted as well the importance of rapid alert systems to allow for more efficient control across European countries, as well as the need for correct labeling and tracing of products that contain the tainted eggs, for instance.

And actually, consumers can do something very specific, Huxdorff believes.

"The more food you buy that is not processed, the more you know about it," she said. "So instead of just turning on the oven, go buy organic food and enjoy your time cooking!"