UK sees health risk in Indian fruit - Pomegranates found to have pesticide residues higher than allowed

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By AMIT ROY in London
  • Published 8.12.06

London, Dec. 8: Pomegranates imported into the UK from India may pose a health risk, it is revealed in a report published today by the Pesticides Residues Committee.

It is unlikely that pomegranates sold in India will have lower levels of pesticide residues than the ones exported, which means domestic consumers will be under the same risk.

The pomegranates are sold in the UK by Waitrose, a supermarket chain which supplied various fruit samples that were analysed by scientists.

The committee is an independent body which advises the British government, the Food Standards Agency and the Pesticides Safety Directorate.

For some time now, the government has been urging people to eat at least five pieces of fruit a day and, according to health experts, pomegranates, which are native to India and to Iran, are said to be especially good for the heart.

Brimming with vitamins A, C, E and iron, the pomegranate has been cultivated since pre-historic times. Scientists have shown that drinking a daily glass of the fruit’s juice can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“Pomegranate juice contains the highest antioxidant capacity compared to other juices, red wine and green tea,” one professor has said.

Another has confirmed: “Preliminary studies suggest that pomegranate juice may contain almost three times the total antioxidant ability compared to the same quantity of green tea or red wine.”

But presumably this does not hold if the pomegranates, hailed as a “super-food”, are rich in pesticides from India.

Reports, such as the one released today, will be very damaging to India’s fruit and vegetable industry, with exports worth Rs 1,300 crore in 2004-05. India has high hopes of boosting exports, especially if controls on allowing western retail groups into the country are relaxed.

The idea is for the new expanded retail groups to buy directly from farmers, use modern methods to stem loss through fruit and vegetables going rotten or being eaten by rodents and export quantities surplus over domestic requirements.

But unregulated use of pesticides seems to be a big problem. Had proper controls been in place, the affected pomegranates should never have left India in the first place.

The Waitrose chain generally has stores in more affluent parts of the UK, since it is more upmarket compared with its middle-market Sainsbury or downmarket Tesco rivals.

After being contacted by the Pesticides Safety Directorate, Waitrose said it was looking into the removal of one type of pesticide from a spray programme used on pomegranates from India.

Ironically, in Waitrose Food Illustrated, its beautifully produced magazine sold to its consumers, “Pomegranate Crush” is projected as a delicious drink.

“This is a common drink in Bengal, where pomegranates are abundant,” says the introduction to the recipe. “It’s really more of a spring drink as the fruit is in season between February and May; nevertheless, it’s very refreshing during the English summer.”

According to The Pomegranate by M.K. Sheikh, an author from Lucknow, “pomegranate cultivation is one of the most remunerative farming enterprises in India. It is grown in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat on a large scale. The total pomegranate production in the world is 10 lakh tonnes. India produces 5 lakh tonnes but exports only 5,000 tonnes, whereas Spain produces 1 lakh tonnes and exports 75,000 tonnes and, their export ends by December. India has the scope to export from January to June to European countries.”

Pomegranates were not the only product analysed by the committee between April and June this year. It tested 1,126 items covering 22 popular foods, including apples, aubergines, bacon, bananas, cauliflower, cheese, cooked pork meat, shellfish, soya milk and orange juice.

The illegal residue levels were found in imported fruits such as grapes, plums, lychees, passion fruit and pomegranates.

Since the government scientists have set a legal limit for pesticide contamination, consumers of pomegranates and other fruits may not be reassured by the comment from the committee chairman, Dr Ian Brown, who said: “In every case the presence of these residues would be very unlikely to have resulted in any adverse health effects for consumers.”

According to a spokeswoman for Defra (department for environment, food and rural affairs), which handles media inquiries on behalf of the committee, the pesticides found in the Indian pomegranates were identified as dithiocarbamtes, acephate, carbendazim and omethoate. The contamination was just above the legal limits.

The legal limit is generally set “for a child rather than an adult”, the spokeswoman explained.