Imported rice in Australia: pesticides and chemicals found to be above safe standards


Two out of four samples of rice tested by SBS fail to comply with Australian regulations. Imported from Pakistan and from India, these basmati rice samples were found to be in breach of levels accepted  by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ).

The tests commissioned by SBS were carried out by Australia’s National Measurement Institute, a food-testing lab accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities.

SBS journalists chose samples produced in different nations to explore if the country of origin made a difference in the quality of the product. The samples were bought in Australia but only one was produced in this country; the other three came from Pakistan, India and Thailand.

The SBS investigation discovered the Indian produced Kohinoor Basmati rice contained Buprofezin, an insecticide that is not permitted in rice in Australia.

It also revealed that Pakistani produced Indus Basmati Rice contained Chlorpyrifos. Its presence in rice constitutes an apparent breach of the Australian and New Zealand food code.

Monash University Professor Brian Priestly says the sample tested of this rice fails the test, because there is no prescribed Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) for Buprofezin in the Australian food standards. He says if an MRL is not set for a particular pesticide or chemical for a product, it should not be detectable in that product.

However, this doesn’t imply that “there would be a health effect from consuming the product”, explained Dr. Priestly.

The MRLs are generally set to limit exposure to contaminants and are not necessarily set as health-based limits. Checks are made to ensure that if a food is consumed according to normal dietary patterns over a lifetime, the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI for pesticides) or Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI for other contaminants) is not exceeded.

Dr. Priestly explains that the MRL for a pesticide is set on the basis of Good Agricultural Practice (GAP), which means that the MRL is a residue level that should not be any higher when the pesticide is used in accordance with regulatory restrictions and label instructions.

What does it mean to exceed an MRL?

Exceeding an MRL indicates improper use. MRLs are generally only set for foods where use of the pesticide is permitted. This means that you will not find MRLs in Australian regulations where use of that particular pesticide on relevant food crops is not permitted.

However, there may be MRLs set by the international Codex process, that allows for MRLs to be set where there are permitted uses in other countries in order to facilitate international trade.

SBS consulted the Australian importer of Kohinoor Basmati rice, Aarkay International, but they declined comment on the high levels of insecticide found. It says it only pays to test its products when Australia's authority asks it to do so.

After the publication of a related story on Food Imports the “All India Rice Exporters Association” sent a written statement to SBS saying that it’s their understanding that “Buprofezin” is allowed for use in Australia claiming and that the “lack of specified MRL in a product does not means it is pro-actively banned”.

Since much of the South Asian community considers rice and wheat as staples, what effect could regular consumption of the products have?

RMIT University health-science professor Marc Cohen, a registered medical practitioner, says it is difficult to predict, even if they are consumed in the low doses regarded as acceptable by Food Standards.

Cohen says this is a problem for toxic-chemical regulation worldwide because it doesn't take into account the effects where very small doses can have a large effect because they disrupt the endocrine system.

"It's not just a linear curve that, lower the dose, lesser the effect," Cohen explains. "You can have two chemicals which, on their own, do nothing, there's no observable effect, but, when you put them together in a body, they do have an effect, because they have a synergistic, or cocktail, effect."

One other test result that has raised concern is Indus Basmati rice, a product of Pakistan purchased from a well-known Australian supermarket.

The lab tests reveal it contained traces of the insecticide Chlorpyrifos, which is not allowed in Australia according to the Department of Health and Human Services of Victoria.

Melbourne-based, land-use researcher Anthony Amis argues Australia should have zero tolerance for substances like Chlorpyrifos because, “it impacts on the nervous system."

"Essentially how it works is that it kills the insects by essentially frying their nervous system," says Amis, a researcher with Friends of the Earth, has studied chemical contamination in food for over 10 years.

"The problem with that is that the same mechanism in the insects is exactly how it works with humans."

To understand how these imported rices are available in Australia, SBS journalists investigated the importation process works.

In Australia, authorities test only those five per cent identified as so-called "surveillance" foods.

The two (out of four) rice samples tested by SBS were among the 95 per cent that were not tested.

This leaves the question, had they been tested, would they have made it to the supermarket shelves, where they are still available?

With the volume of international trade increasing, and greater emphasis on simplifying business procedures, even importers agree fewer food samples seem to be tested these days.

Harjinder Singh owns a retail grocery business in Dandenong, in south-east Melbourne. He says, out of every hundred products imported, only the rare one is sent for testing.

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, reached by SBS, says food businesses importing food are subject to the requirements of the relevant state or territory government.

The department says where concerns around the integrity of a particular food business are identified, they are investigated and appropriate action is taken.

SBS asked the Department of Health and Human Services of Victoria if they were considering recalling the products identified by SBS investigation or increasing the tests for these foods in future imports, but they declined to comment.


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