A new European study shows that pesticide residue levels in foods have decreased over the past few years.

More than 97 percent of food samples evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for its latest report contained pesticide residues that were within legal limits, and in fact almost 55 percent of samples had no detectable traces of these chemicals.

The 2013 annual report on pesticide residues in food, which was released last week, includes test results from almost 81,000 food samples from 27 member states of the European Union, as well as non-members Iceland and Norway.

Officials tested for the presence of 685 pesticides in a wide variety of processed and unprocessed food products, including apples, cabbage, leek, lettuce, peaches, rye, oats, strawberries, tomatoes, milk, pork and wine. Results showed that:

  • 97.4 percent of the samples analyzed fell within legal limits;
  • 54.6 percent were free of detectable residues;
  • 1.5 percent clearly exceeded the legal limits, leading to legal or administrative sanctions against the food companies responsible;
  • Residues of more than one pesticide were found in 27.3 percent of samples.

Overall, compared with results from 2010, there was a decrease in the percentage of samples exceeding the legal limits for all food products tested.

More than two-thirds of all samples were taken from food originating in Europe, with the rest coming from food imported from third countries. EFSA found a higher prevalence of residues exceeding the maximum limits in imported products (5.7 percent for imported products versus 1.4 percent for products produced in E.U. countries). But the Authority noted that exceedance rates for imported food were down by nearly two percentage points (from 7.5 percent) since 2012.

Although some food samples were found to have higher than permitted levels of pesticide residues, EFSA noted that this was unlikely to have a long-term effect on health. For short-term exposure, the risk of consumers being exposed to harmful levels of residues in their diet was also rated as low.