PESTICIDE RESIDUES in winter lettuce have reduced significantly, according to official government figures.

The results of a programme to monitor residue levels and illegal pesticide use in the crop were announced by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Thurs (July 8).

Fourteen out of 161 samples (8.7%) were found to contain residues exceeding guidelines set according to Codex, EC or UK statutory Maximum Residue Levels (MRL).

This is down from 14% in 2002/3 and nearly 20% the year before.

Nine (5.6%) of the samples were found to contain residues of non-approved pesticides.

Residues of methyl bromide in particular have come under scrutiny in the last two years, after they took a sharp rise following poor growing conditions for winter lettuce in 2001.

Using impermeable plastic sheeting to retain more of the pesticide in the soil has also been blamed for residue problems.

The Pesticide Safety Directorate met with contractors and growers to explore options that would not pose an MRL risk and claimed the reduction has come following action taken.

In December 2003 DEFRA minister Alun Michael had threatened legal action against growers who breached residue limits.

Announcing the latest results Mr Michael said he was pleased levels of inorganic bromide found in lettuce samples in previous years had not been repeated.

“Nevertheless, this set of results shows that winter lettuce continues to pose a potential problem,” he added.

“Continued vigilance is needed to ensure that pesticides used do not exceed limits set according to agricultural practice.”

MRLs are not health safety limits but are set primarily to encourage good agricultural practice, said DEFRA.

Neither the MRL exceedences, nor the samples containing non-approved pesticides pose a health risk to consumers, the department pointed out.

For this reason, DEFRA is not intending to prosecute offending growers, but they have been warned that they must comply with the MRLs in all future programmes.

Following recent international agreements, methyl bromide was due to be phased out from December 31, 2004.

But the UK has since been granted an exemption for a further 12 months to give farmers and growers extra time to examine cost-effective substitutes.