[WATCH] Good laws but only on paper: Malta takes no action on unauthorised pesticides

No investigation being held on root cause of maximum pesticide residue levels in treated crops (MRL) of 15%, much higher than EU average of 2.7%

Updated at 10:44 am with Agriculture Minister reaction

It sounds like a familiar story. While Malta has adequate laws regulating the importation and sale of pesticides and even has a robust system of inspections to detect abuse, it is failing in imposing sanctions which deter against widespread abuse of substances which can have a negative impact on human health and the environment.

Data from inspections carried out by the Maltese authorities referred to the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office, which carried out an audit in September 2021 that suggests rampant abuse in this sector.

According to this data, non-compliance with rules were identified in 60% of pesticide distributors inspected in 2019.

And although there was a “major improvement” in 2020, when non-compliance incidents were identified in 27% of distributors inspected, “the level of distributors with non-compliances identified is still high”, an audit report says.

Moreover, data by Maltese authorities also points at a high level of non-compliance with regards to the sale of unauthorised products. In fact, 47% and 43% of the products randomly checked in 2019 and 2020 respectively, were not even authorised.

The audit reveals that in 2020, some 10% of samples taken from domestically-grown products had exceedances of maximum pesticide residue levels in treated crops (MRL) while in 2019, the exceedance rate was almost 15%. This is much higher than the average level of MRL exceedances in the EU for products, which amounted to 2.7%.

In these cases the competent authorities initiated court proceedings which are still pending in most of the cases, even if some of the cases date back to 2016.

But the audit laments that “no investigation” is undertaken by the authorities on “the root cause of the MRL exceedances”, which is the misuse of pesticides placed on the local market.

According to EU rules incorporated in Maltese law, Plant Protection Products (PPPs) can only be authorised if these have no identified harmful effects on human and animal health, and if these have no unacceptable effects on the environment. It also requires that PPPs be applied according to the authorised conditions of use.

In 2018 and 2019, PPPs containing almost 90 tonnes and 75 tonnes, respectively, of active substances were placed on the market in Malta.

Audit laments absence of court action

The European Commission audit reveals that despite “the high level of non-compliances” identified during inspections by Maltese authorities, the Malta Competition and Consumers Affairs Authority “has never proposed that financial penalties be applied through their court system in Malta”. In addition, “no other sanctions such as withdrawal of certificates issued have ever been imposed”.

Moreover when detecting non-compliances, the Authority fails “in taking appropriate measure to ensure that the operators concerned remedy the non-compliances and prevent further occurrences of such non-compliances”.

The report points out that in the case of non-compliance relating to the use of PPPs, the authorities have a range of appropriate sanctions they can apply.

The Pesticides Control Act foresees fines from up to €1,164 for first infringements and up to €2,329 for repeated infringements and even imprisonment for up to six months. But since these penalties are not “administrative fines, these have to be applied via the court system.

According to the report the Maltese authorities could not provide the audit team “with a clear explanation why the abovementioned sanctions have never been applied”.

And although unauthorised products that are identified have to be removed from the market, no written request was ever submitted to the operators involved, and no deadline was given for them to dispose of the PPPs. In addition, no evidence is requested to confirm that the PPPs have been disposed of or returned to the authorisation holder. The only verification made is a second inspection the following year.

The only penalties which have been applied were those by the Agriculture and Rural Payments Agency which makes deduction in Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments to farmers who misuse pesticides. The amount of the deduction depends on the severity of the infringement, ranging from 1% for minor infringements to 5% for more severe infringements. For repeated infringements, this can go up to 15% when the same infringement is identified in the three years following the initial infringement.

In the most serious cases involving intentional and repeat offences with wide ranging and serious consequences, up to 100% of the CAP payments can be withheld. The audit team was informed that in 2020, the amount of the deduction of payments applied to 57 operators ranged from €2 to €840.

Good laws but only on paper

According to the report, the Maltese legislation and the system of official controls put in place provides a good basis for the implementation of official controls on the marketing and use of plant protection products in Malta.

Moreover the report also lauds Malta for having a “well-trained” staff complement which includes 16 enforcement officers who dedicate 20% of their time working on PPP controls.

However, the effectiveness of controls is negatively impacted by the lack of access to laboratory capacity for formulation analysis, ineffective sanctioning in the case of non-compliances and the absence of controls on certain categories of users of plant protection products.

“Consequently, this does not prevent or deter distributors from routinely selling unauthorised plant protection products and users do not use plant protection products in line with their conditions of authorization.”

This is resulting in a high level of non-compliances being detected during controls. And this means that existing laws and sanctions are not enough to “prevent or deter distributors from routinely selling unauthorised plant protection products”.

The list of all PPPs which can be marketed and used in Malta is publicly available on the MCCAA’s website.

But according to the audit the list still includes products that are no longer authorised and are in a grace period of sale and use.

Moreover users do not use plant protection products in line with their conditions of authorisation, resulting in a high level of non-compliances being detected during controls.

The audit took place from 6 to 15 September 2021. The audit team comprised two auditors from DG Health and Food Safety. The audit was conducted remotely in light of public health advice relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In their reply to the audit report, the Maltese authorities declared that Malta has invested heavily to establish a comprehensive system “for the coordination of targeted inspections which supports a transparent and effective approach towards enforcement”. Such investments included the creation of a digital system to allow collection, analysis and appropriate follow-up action.

“The Competent Authority will continue to work with stakeholders to strengthen the control on all operators, particularly service providers for the application of PPPs in non-agricultural areas.”

The high level of non-compliance was also partly blamed on COVID restrictions and the resultant inability to conduct training sessions that operators could physically attend.

Agriculture Minister reacts

In a short reaction to the report on Monday morning, Agriculture Minister Anton Refalo said the issue is being discussed internally.

“We are moving forward, discussing internally so that we can come up with a solution,” he said.