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North Macedonia's 'Mea Culpa' On Pesticide-Laden Produce Headed For The EU

North Macedonia’s rules on banning harmful pesticides are not fully aligned with that of the EU, meaning certain substances are still used in domestic products. (illustrative photo)
North Macedonia’s rules on banning harmful pesticides are not fully aligned with that of the EU, meaning certain substances are still used in domestic products. (illustrative photo)

Shipments of vegetables imported from North Macedonia were discovered to contain dangerous pesticides that are banned on the European market, a state inspection agency has confirmed in a new report.

Stocks of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has been banned in the European Union since 2020, are still being used in agricultural products, the State Agricultural Inspectorate (DIC) recently found.

According to the latest data from the EU’s 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 the beginning of this year.

The shipments were refused entry at the Croatian border, and the RASFF website states they were labeled as "potentially risky" for consumer health.

The most recent case was recorded on February 19. The biggest culprit was mixed lettuce, which was shown to contain chlorpyrifos. The amount of chlorpyrifos found in the shipment was 0.055 milligrams per kilogram.

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

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

"There was information from the RASFF system that in one shipment from our country, residues of chlorpyrifos -- a pesticide that is not allowed neither here nor in the EU -- were discovered. That's why the shipment was canceled right at the border," AHV Director Nikolce Babovski told RFE/RL.

Misaligned Policy On Pesticides

According to the DIC, legislation in North Macedonia regarding the banning of harmful pesticides is not fully aligned with that of the EU, meaning certain 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 using up its existing stocks is still valid, but according to European laws that window has 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.
A woman shops at a market in Skopje.

Regarding the fact that this transitional period has long passed, the DIC said it will carry out further inspections on the ground and controls of whether chlorpyrifos and other harmful pesticides are still in use.

"This year, it is planned to take 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 the state phytosanitary inspectors at the producers regarding the correct use of pesticides.”

Barred At The Border

Earlier this year, two shipments of produce from North Macedonia, destined for Croatia, did not make it across the border.

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

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

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

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

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

Babovksi maintains that these four cases represent rare instances of pesticides. He assured residents that domestically produced fruit and vegetables are safe for consumption.

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

Hot dogs, juices, dried figs, ice cream, ginger powder, butter, mineral water, and baking products were all withdrawn as “unsafe” products from the North Macedonia market at some point during the last year, according to the AHV register.

More than 200 tons of “unsafe” food was destroyed in the country in 2023.

Relying On Homegrown

Many consumers in North Macedonia, meanwhile, are shying away from large supermarket chains out of fear for contaminated products. The Food and Veterinary Agency of North Macedonia says homegrown vegetables are perfectly safe.

Residents of Skopje whom RFE/RL spoke with say they prefer to shop at local markets over 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 have been buying produce there for over 10 years.

"These people sell the products here directly from the garden, while at the supermarket everything is imported,” says Mileva. “The products there are not always fresh, and they are also sprayed with chemicals, so they only look more beautiful, while here, in the market, everything is natural.”

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

European Infractions

Other countries have been caught exporting produce with banned limits of pesticides.

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

This amount of dimethoate is defined as carrying “serious” risk to consumer health. The cherries were immediately withdrawn from the market and destroyed.

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

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

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