A quick internet search for “Germany + food scandal” reveals more than any happily ignorant grocery shopper would ever want to know: in the past sixth months alone, Germans have been warned against ordinary spices, pears, cherries, rucola and eggs for reasons that range from dangerous levels of pesticide contamination (DDT in curry; amitraz in Turkish pears; pesticide residue on French and Spanish cherries), to poisonous plants hiding inside banal packages (ragwort in a bag of rucola from Plus), to nicotine sulfate, a cancer-causing anti-parasite spray (used by a Dutch egg producer).
Such scandals are reported with alarming frequency - but after the headlines fade away, are we any safer? Manfred Santen, a food chemist for Greenpeace, gave us the dirt.
Greenpeace uncovered a huge scandal this October: 25 percent of everyday spices like curry and paprika contained dangerous levels of pesticides. Can you explain this?
Yes, our tests showed that there is a huge number of poisonous substances in curry. We also found it in paprika powder. We found 20 or 30 different substances in a single sample of it! That is a huge amount. You just have to imagine - there’s some field somewhere in the world where some poor worker is drowning everything in all these poisonous chemicals. Because if you find 30 different substances in a single sample, that means that the field where this paprika grew was massively sprayed. That’s the real scandal.
Why is this happening? Are importers violating EU regulations, or is it because the right regulations don’t exist?
Spices such as tumeric or coriander, which are both found in curry, are imported from Asia or Africa. The regulations are obviously different there than they are here, but when they’re imported to the EU they must follow its regulations. For curry, there is no regulation - not on the German or the EU level - because it’s a mixture of spices, and each one has its own regulations. That is a massive oversight, and one that needs to be fixed as soon as possible. With paprika there are regulations, but they are not strict enough. Otherwise we wouldn’t have found that sample with 20 or 30 pesticides in it…
There was also an uproar a few years ago about BPAs in the plastic nipples of baby bottles. What about contamination from food packaging?
Oh yeah, that’s hard. BPA is most prevalently found in plastics. These bottles, for instance - almost all baby bottles are now BPA-free, but in all honesty you can never be completely safe. Sometimes the cap of the bottle will be from BPA-plastic or something like that, and you’ll never know. The only thing to do is to pay attention.
Can you give us some tips on how to avoid contaminated food?
The best advice is to look out for the results of tests by activist groups and government agencies. We add warnings to our website when we find anything. There’s a huge amount of information out there, a lot of reading material. But otherwise, our essential advice is to always buy organic. Organic products are the least contaminated, and at this point you can find them in most supermarkets.
So bio is the answer.
Our position has long been that buying bio is the easiest way to avoid pesticides, but as for other chemicals, like those in packaging - I don’t know if anyone has the answer to that. Also the ‘organic’ label doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not an industrialized operation, and some organic farms also have problems with copper contamination in their fields. The safest choice is Demeter. Those products are not just organic - they’re also grown in an ecological way with respect to cultivation and production processes.