U.S. food companies are throwing a monkey wrench into the growing complexity of pesticide maximum residue levels (MRLs) in crops.

McDonald’s and Wal-Mart are stirring the MRL pot by considering private regulations far more stringent than the MRLs developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The regulations are creating more confusion for production agriculture on allowable pesticide tolerances.

A MRL is the maximum pesticide residue level legally permitted in or on food or animal feed. The MRL is an enforcement tool for products in trade.

Cindy Baker says the evolution of private company regulations is aimed at protecting company brands and ensuring food safety.

“Companies have a lot at stake with their brand,” said Baker, president of Exigent, part of the Gowan Group of companies. Gowan is a registrant and marketer of crop protection products based in Yuma, Ariz.

“For McDonald’s the brand is French fries and for Tropicana it’s orange juice.”

Baker says companies are hunkering down to further reduce or eliminate pesticide MRLs in crops to boost market share by marketing their products as free of pesticide residues.

Baker discussed MRL trends with growers, pest control advisers and chemical company representatives during the 2010 Desert Crops Conference in Casa Grande, Ariz., in May, sponsored by the Arizona Crop Protection Association.

Baker’s credentials on the MRL issue include her involvement as a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee. Baker is the registrant on the U.S. delegation for Codex, an international body that sets tolerances for countries without their own MRL levels.

An MRL is established on one pesticide per crop.

“They’ve started to look at whether they can get a better market advantage by eliminating pesticide residues in food or eliminating classes of chemistry including organophosphates used in crop production,” Baker said.

Wal-Mart, for example, is evaluating a stewardship index initiative for specialty crops grown in the West. Growers would be rated according to a matrix of factors; comparing practices by Grower X, Grower Y and Grower Z. Growers could be graded on efforts to reduce pesticide and water use, plus worker protection from pesticide exposure.

The matrix would be on top of stringent EPA regulations.

Baker shared a McDonald’s effort where a stakeholder resolution proposed the company discontinue the purchase of crops containing any pesticide residue. The company chose to test the concept on potatoes.

The idea was to create a common matrix for potato production at every location where potatoes are grown for McDonald’s. Baker says these matrixes can be problematic since integrated pest management (IPM), production costs, and other resources are not given full consideration.

“Growing potatoes in different areas of the U.S. and Canada is very different due to various nematode and insect pressures, weed management challenges, and weather conditions,” Baker said. “IPM procedures for potato production in Boise, Idaho are different from those in Canada.”

“Whether the issue is food safety, sustainability or pesticide use, the core principals of IPM should be incorporated into crop production. We need to grow a crop affordably, safely, and effectively.”

Baker points out that pesticides which gain an EPA registration already have passed strict safety standards for consumer health, the environment and for workers. The pesticide label provides detailed use information for safe product use.

Private regulation for pesticides is among the emerging MRL issues. Also on the front burner is the growing practice by individual countries or blocks of countries, the European Union (EU) for example, to create individual MRL levels for each pesticide, crop and country.

Globally, the practice is extremely complicated for production agriculture where keeping track of multiple MRLs generates confusion. Baker supports a global standard for MRLs, a simpler method to help production agriculture use pesticides on crops under the same rules.

This is especially important in the global export arena. A grower may or may not know early in the growing season whether the crop will be sold for domestic or export sale. As the crop matures the final crop destination can change.

“Imagine having a perishable commodity held up at a port in Japan while you fight through the trade groups in the government to get your commodity freed up,” Baker said. “In the meantime the crop can spoil. In global trade everything is regulated through MRLs.”

“This is not an issue of whether an MRL level is lower or higher than the accepted standards or whether the crop is safe,” Baker told the crowd. “The issue is whether it is legal to transfer a crop within the channels of trade inside and outside of the United States.”

About 9,000 U.S. MRLs (tolerances) have been re-evaluated by the EPA since the Food Quality Protection Act was enacted in 1996.

The European Union completed a two-year MRL “harmonization” process in 2008 which created a different MRL determination process from the U.S. version.

Japan has a ‘three strikes you’re out’ policy. If an illegal MRL level is found in a shipment, 50 percent of the next shipment will undergo testing. A third find prohibits future imports.

Baker says Japan initially applied the policy to commodities as a group. If shipments of wheat from ‘Company J’ in the U.S. were curtained under the ‘three strikes’ policy, Japan banned all U.S. wheat imports from every company.

Baker credits the USDA and the U.S. Trade Representative for leadership in changing Japan’s penalty to the individual company.

In Taiwan, the MRL issue is based on the lack of manpower. One person sets every MRL on every crop which has backed up the process. Taiwan is a major importer of U.S. fruit.

Baker says South Korea’s MRL system has been impacted significantly by South Korean crops being rejected at U.S. ports for the lack of an MRL.

Baker recommends two Web sites which offer current information on global MRL requirements: www.mrldatabase.com and www.mrlharmonization.com. Pesticide MRLs are listed by pesticide, crop and country.

Baker offers these ideas to smooth out the MRL issue:

• Continue the call for a global registration process

• Acceptance of Codex tolerances

• Improved communications among all stakeholders

• Implementation of a system to prevent multiple regulatory and private standards.

“If you are a grower or food processor and want to use a pesticide on a crop, the goal is not to check seven different lists for compliance terms.”

To gain a good understanding of MRLs, Baker endorsed an online Western Farm Press Continuing Education Unit course called “The ABCs of MRLs.” The course, sponsored by DuPont, is available for no charge at www.pentonag.com/mrl.

email: cblake@farmpress.com