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6 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 8 MAY 2022 NEWS EU laments absence of sanctions against misuse of pesticides Almost half of pesticides checked by Maltese authorities were not authorised but no court action was ever taken JAMES DEBONO 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 im- posing sanctions which deter against widespread abuse of sub- stances which can have a nega- tive impact on human health and the environment. Data from inspections carried out by the Maltese authorities re- ferred to the European Commis- sion's Food and Veterinary Of- fice, 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 dis- tributors inspected in 2019. And although there was a "ma- jor improvement" in 2020, when non-compliance incidents were identified in 27% of distributors inspected, "the level of distribu- tors with non-compliances iden- tified is still high", an audit report says. Moreover, data by Maltese au- thorities also points at a high level of non-compliance with re- gards 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 av- erage level of MRL exceedances in the EU for products, which amounted to 2.7%. In these cases the competent authorities initiated court pro- ceedings 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 incor- porated 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 ef- fects on the environment. It also requires that PPPs be applied ac- cording to the authorised condi- tions of use. In 2018 and 2019, PPPs con- taining 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 au- dit reveals that despite "the high level of non-compliances" identi- fied during inspections by Mal- tese authorities, the Malta Com- petition and Consumers Affairs Authority "has never proposed that financial penalties be ap- plied 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 meas- ure to ensure that the operators concerned remedy the non-com- pliances and prevent further oc- currences of such non-compli- ances". The report points out that in the case of non-compliance re- lating to the use of PPPs, the au- thorities have a range of appro- priate 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 infringe- ments and even imprisonment for up to six months. But since these penalties are not "admin- istrative 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 above- mentioned sanctions have never been applied". And although unauthorised products that are identified have to be removed from the market, no written request was ever sub- mitted to the operators involved, and no deadline was given for them to dispose of the PPPs. In addition, no evidence is request- ed to confirm that the PPPs have been disposed of or returned to the authorisation holder. The only verification made is a sec- ond 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 in- fringements to 5% for more se- vere infringements. For repeated infringements, this can go up to 15% when the same infringement is identified in the three years fol- lowing the initial infringement. In the most serious cases in- volving 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 pay- ments applied to 57 operators ranged from €2 to €840. Good laws but only on paper According to the report, the Maltese legislation and the sys- tem 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 work- ing on PPP controls. However, the effectiveness of controls is negatively impacted by the lack of access to laborato- ry capacity for formulation anal- ysis, ineffective sanctioning in the case of non-compliances and the absence of controls on cer- tain categories of users of plant protection products. "Consequently, this does not prevent or deter distributors from routinely selling unauthor- ised plant protection products and users do not use plant pro- tection products in line with their conditions of authorization." This is resulting in a high level of non-compliances being de- tected during controls. And this means that existing laws and sanctions are not enough to "pre- vent 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 MC- CAA'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 authori- sation, 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 Safe- ty. The audit was conducted re- motely 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 heavi- ly to establish a comprehensive system "for the coordination of targeted inspections which sup- ports a transparent and effective approach towards enforcement". Such investments included the creation of a digital system to allow collection, analysis and ap- propriate follow-up action. "The Competent Authority will continue to work with stakehold- ers to strengthen the control on all operators, particularly service providers for the application of PPPs in non-agricultural areas." The high level of non-compli- ance was also partly blamed on COVID restrictions and the re- sultant inability to conduct train- ing sessions that operators could physically attend.

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