Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs)

Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) are the upper legal levels of a concentration for pesticide residues in or on food or feed. MRLs are set for a wide range of food commodities of plant and animal origin, and they usually apply to the product as put on the market (e.g. oranges including the peel or stone fruit including the stones). MRLs are not simply set as toxicological threshold levels, but they are derived after comprehensive assessment of the properties of the active substance and the residue behavior on treated crops. An indispensable precondition for setting MRLs is the performance of a risk assessment to ensure consumer safety. Since 1976 harmonized legal provisions for pesticide residues in food, the so-called Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs), have been established at EU level.

Until September 2008, when new legislation enters fully into force, European MRL legislation is based on four Directives:

Under the above legislation, approximately 250 pesticides are covered by European MRL legislation for various pesticide/commodity combinations. For those pesticide/commodity combinations where no EU MRL exists, under the above legislation the situation is not harmonized and the Member States may set MRLs at national level to protect the health of consumers, subject to satisfying their legal obligations under the EU Treaty. More background information on MRLs is available from the European Commission’s DG Health and Consumer Protection, including lists of substances for which EU MRLs have been set. 

Pesticide MRL harmonization programme

Regulation (EC) No. 396/2005 envisages a full harmonization for all pesticide MRLs and replaces the previous legislation concerning MRLs. Based on this legislation, the European Commission is taking forward a food standards programme which strives to achieve the harmonization of the remaining 900 pesticides which could potentially be present as residues on food. According to this Regulation the harmonized MRLs should be based on existing national provisions in place in EU Member States.

The European Commission compiled a list of the national MRLs for non-harmonized substances. As many of these pesticides are no longer used in agriculture either within or outside the EU, the Commission considered it appropriate to set MRLs for these essentially obsolete compounds at the lowest possible level. The Commission will therefore propose to set MRLs for around 660 obsolete pesticides at the limit of determination, which is the lowest level surveillance laboratories can achieve in monitoring analysis.

For around 240 remaining compounds, which are still in use either in or outside the EU, Member States have established specific national MRLs. These are now subject to the European harmonisation programme, which in the first instance involves establishing temporary European level MRLs for these substances. The temporary MRLs will be subject to a detailed scientific assessment leading to the establishment of final EU MRLs following a comprehensive assessment of the active substances.

Entry into force of Regulation (EC) 396/2005

Regulation (EC) 396/2005 is fully applicable as of 2 September 2008. As a result, from September 2008 national MRLs will no longer be in place and only harmonized European legal limits will apply.

PRAPeR opinion on temporary MRLs

In September 2006 the Commission submitted to EFSA a list of the highest MRLs applied at national level for pesticides (the so-called proposed temporary MRLs) which are subject to a Community-wide harmonization programme. In March 2007 EFSA’s PRAPeR published an opinion on the potential chronic and acute risk to consumers’ health arising from the proposed temporary EU MRLs and EFSA issued a related press release.

For more information