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North Macedonia’s ‘Mea Culpa’ over pesticide-laden produce heads to EU

Shipments of vegetables imported from North Macedonia were found to contain dangerous pesticides banned from the European market, a national inspection agency confirmed in a new report.

Stocks of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, banned in the European Union since 2020, are still used in agricultural products, the National Agricultural Inspectorate (DIC) recently noted.

According to the latest data from the EU Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), four shipments of vegetables containing excessive amounts of harmful pesticides were discovered coming from North Macedonia to Croatia last year and early this year.

The shipments were refused entry at the Croatian border and the RASFF website says they were labeled as “potentially risky” to consumers’ health.

The most recent case was recorded on February 19. The main culprit was mixed lettuce, which contained chlorpyrifos. The amount of chlorpyrifos found in the cargo was 0.055 milligrams per kilogram.

According to European regulations, there is no acceptable quantity of this particular pesticide. If consumed, chlorpyrifos may contribute to impaired brain development in children, as well as increased hyperactivity.

The Food and Veterinary Agency of North Macedonia (AHV) confirmed the case.

“The RASFF system indicated that in a shipment from our country, residues of chlorpyrifos — a pesticide that is not authorized either here or in the EU — were found. Therefore the shipment was canceled directly at the border,” he added. AHV director Nikolce Babovski told RFE/RL.

Misaligned policy on pesticides

According to the DIC, North Macedonia’s legislation regarding the ban on harmful pesticides is not fully aligned with that of the EU, meaning that some substances are still used in domestic products.

Chlorpyrifos, arguably the most controversial pesticide, has been banned in the EU since April 2020. The DIC maintains that the transition period for depleting its existing stocks is still valid, but that under EU law this window is closed.

“The procedure for destroying these products represents a big problem for our country, as well as for other countries,” the DIC said.

A woman shops at a market in Skopje.

Regarding the fact that this transition period has long passed, the DIC said it will carry out additional field inspections and checks to check whether chlorpyrifos and other harmful pesticides are still used.

“This year, it is planned to collect 203 samples of several primary agricultural products. Samples are taken regularly and delivered to accredited laboratories,” the DIC said. “Regular and extraordinary inspections are carried out by state phytosanitary inspectors at producers regarding the correct use of pesticides.

Banned at the border

Earlier this year, two shipments of products from North Macedonia, destined for Croatia, failed to cross the border.

A shipment of carrots sent from North Macedonia to Croatia on February 15 contained chlorpyrifos residues of 0.049 mg/kg.

The fate of the contaminated carrots is unknown. No information is available on the RASFF website, although Babovski says the contaminated products were not returned to the country.

On January 22, a shipment of mixed products containing chlorpyrifos residues (0.068 mg/kg) was intercepted and destroyed at the Croatian border.

Last September, a shipment of peppers was registered as “dangerous” by customs officials at the Croatian border and refused entry.

RASFF data shows that these disputed shipments of goods from North Macedonia were discovered and destroyed only at the Croatian border, and not in other countries.

Babovksi argues that these four cases represent rare cases of pesticides. He assured residents that locally produced fruits and vegetables are safe to eat.

More than 57,000 inspections were carried out nationwide in 2023, he said, and when harmful substances were detected, products were quickly removed from shelves.

Hot dogs, fruit juices, dried figs, ice cream, powdered ginger, butter, mineral water and baked goods have all been removed from the North Macedonian market as “dangerous” products at some point over the from last year, according to the AVS register.

More than 200 tonnes of “dangerous” food were destroyed in the country in 2023.

Rely on local products

Many consumers in North Macedonia, meanwhile, avoid large supermarket chains for fear of contaminated products. The Food and Veterinary Agency of North Macedonia claims that home-grown vegetables are perfectly safe.

Skopje residents RFE/RL spoke with say they prefer to shop at local markets rather than large supermarket chains because they trust domestic producers more.

Ljuba Mileva, who was shopping at a market in the Cento neighborhood, told RFE/RL that she and her husband had been shopping there for more than 10 years.

“Here, these people sell products directly from the garden, while in the supermarket, everything is imported,” explains Mileva. “The products there are not always fresh and they are also sprayed with chemicals, which makes them even more beautiful, whereas here in the market everything is natural.

One of the vendors at the Cento market told RFE/RL that she and her husband have owned several fields where they have grown produce in the village of Rashtak, just outside the capital, for decades.

European offenses

Other countries have been caught exporting products with banned pesticide limits.

The Netherlands recently withdrew frozen cherries of Serbian origin from the market, the RASFF system announced. The cherries contained an excessive amount of dimethoate, a controlled pesticide. In a sample tested on March 6, dimethoate residues were detected in an amount of 0.044 mg/kg, while the permitted amount, according to EU regulations, is 0.01 mg/kg.

This quantity of dimethoate is defined as posing a “serious” risk to the health of consumers. The cherries were immediately removed from the market and destroyed.

On 11 occasions since the start of 2023, other countries attempted to export various types of fruits and vegetables laden with dangerous pesticides to Croatia, but the goods were destroyed at the EU border.

According to RASFF, two disputed shipments of tomatoes and spring onions from Albania containing chlorpyrifos were also discovered on the Croatian border.

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