Study detects pesticide residues in baby food | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Study detects pesticide residues in baby food Analysis conducted in Spain used a methodology developed by researchers at the State University of Campinas to detect many toxins simultaneously (photo: Freepik)

Study detects pesticide residues in baby food

March 15, 2023

By Monica Tarantino  |  Agência FAPESP – A study conducted by scientists from Brazil and Spain looked for 21 pesticides (fungicides, insecticides and herbicides), as well as four toxins produced by fungi of the genus Aspergillus (aflatoxins) in 50 samples of industrialized baby foods sold by supermarkets in São Paulo state, Brazil.

The good news is that they did not find any traces of aflatoxins, which are toxic to humans and animals. The fungi grow in soil and most food crops, such as wheat, corn, rice and peanuts. Aflatoxin B1, for example, is a known carcinogen.

The study was conducted by food engineer Rafaela Prata, with funding from FAPESP. An article reporting the results is published in the journal Food Control.

Seven of the 21 pesticides targeted were detected in the samples. “We found pesticide residues in 68% of the samples, with 47% of the fruit purées and 85% of the products based on meat and/or vegetables containing at least one residue,” Prata said. 

The levels of pesticide residues found in the samples were below the maximum limits set by the European Union since 2006, used as a metric in the study. For most pesticides, the maximum residue limit is 10 micrograms per kilogram of baby food, but lower limits apply to specific substances, such as fipronil (4 μg per kg). “Brazil doesn’t have laws on maximum residue levels in baby food,” Prata said. “All we have is a number of monographs on pesticide residues available from the National Health Surveillance Agency [ANVISA], which we consulted in order to see which crops specific pesticides can be used on and limits for residues in food products, but there’s nothing on baby food.”

Brazil needs specific regulation of these products, she added. “Babies are a sensitive and vulnerable group because they consume more food per kilogram of body weight than adults, and their detoxification systems and metabolic pathways aren’t fully developed. It’s important to analyze the composition of the foods offered to them,” she said.

“Even if levels of these substances are within the limits set by the EU, ideally they shouldn’t be in baby foods at all,” said Spanish researcher Roberto Romero-González, last author of the article. He is an internationally recognized expert on contaminants and one of the leaders of the Contaminant Analytical Chemistry Laboratory at the University of Almería’s Research Center for Mediterranean Intensive Agrosystems and Agri-Food Biotechnology (CIAIMBITAL) in Spain, where part of the analysis of Brazilian baby food products was performed, with funding from FAPESP.

More research needed

Research on the presence in baby food of pesticides and toxins produced by fungi is advanced in Europe but scarce in Brazil. “Brazil is one of the largest consumers of baby food in the world and needs to invest in this kind of research,” Prata said. “To our knowledge, this was the first analysis to use a methodology developed to identify pesticides of different classes and mycotoxins in meat- and vegetable-based baby food products.”

Part of the research was done at the State University of Campinas’s School of Food Engineering (FEA-UNICAMP) in Brazil, where Professor Helena Godoy heads the Food Analysis Laboratory. Her work on baby food contaminants and validation of analytical methods is supported by FAPESP. The only previous research findings on pesticide contamination of food products focused on fruit purées.

Shortly after this analysis, the group submitted the same samples to another screening process in search of 2,424 contaminants not covered initially, including other pesticides, hormones, veterinary medications, and human metabolites of these chemical compounds.

“We found ten more pesticides and one metabolite, demonstrating that the method we developed is sensitive and efficacious,” Prata said, referring to the innovative process and novel materials involved in the group’s adaptation of methodologies used to identify a single compound for the detection of many pesticides and mycotoxins simultaneously. “We developed a reliable method of analyzing multiple residues and validated it fully. It can be a useful tool for food surveillance programs.”

Residues of aldicarb sulfoxide, a metabolite of a highly toxic pesticide, were found in samples of baby foods with the following compositions: bean broth, rice and meat; vegetables and meat; and squash, black beans and chicken breast. The test did not measure residue quantities. Aldicarb has been banned in Brazil since 2012, before which it was widely used as a rodenticide.

According to toxicologist Daniel Junqueira Dorta, a professor of forensic chemistry at the University of São Paulo (USP) in Ribeirão Preto, aldicarb breaks down in soil within two to three weeks. The presence of residues in the food samples suggests it is being used illegally by agriculturalists. “High levels of aldicarb in the human organism are acutely toxic. These residues shouldn’t have been there by any means,” he said.

For Helenice de Souza Spinosa, a professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences (FMVZ-USP), who has analyzed the toxicity of the compound in cats and dogs, the finding is important and requires further investigation. Both Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture (MAPA) and food producers are responsible for conducting regular tests to detect the presence of contaminants in baby foods, she noted.

“Infants don’t eat large amounts of these baby foods. The level of residue wasn’t quantified in the study. It was almost certainly minimal and wouldn’t cause acute poisoning, but the finding is important because the pesticide is banned and yet it’s still in use apparently,” she said.

Agência FAPESP asked the Brazilian Food Industry Association (ABIA) for comment but was redirected by ABIA’s press office to the Brazilian Dietetic and Special Purpose Foods Association (ABIAD), which issued a statement saying that its members comply with all the applicable domestic legislation and standards. Moreover, companies have strict quality assurance policies for their consumer products, the statement said: “Food products have to undergo several strict health surveillance procedures to win approval from ANVISA. Only then can they be offered to consumers. ABIAD also stresses that none of its member companies has been told by bodies that regulate food quality in Brazil about irregular substances in baby food products.”

The article “Targeted and non-targeted analysis of pesticides and aflatoxins in baby foods by liquid chromatography coupled to quadrupole Orbitrap mass spectrometry” is at:




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