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Chemicals in food - maximum residue limits

(December 2014)

What is a maximum residue limit (MRL)?

An MRL is the highest concentration of a chemical residue that is legally permitted or accepted in a food and is based on good agricultural and chemical use practices. MRLs for all foods sold in Australia are listed in Schedule 20 of the Food Standards Code. MRLs are regulatory standards that help to monitor whether an agricultural or veterinary chemical (agvet chemical) has been used as directed on an approved label. If an MRL is exceeded it usually indicates a misuse of the chemical but does not normally mean there is a public health or safety concern.

How are MRLs for food set?

FSANZ and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) have shared responsibilities in relation to MRLs.
The APVMA leads the MRL setting process for foods that are produced domestically in Australia. The APVMA assesses agvet chemicals for use and set MRLs after comprehensive evaluation of a chemical product’s chemistry, metabolism, analytical methodology and residue trial data. The permitted limits are set well below the level that would be harmful, so a residue level slightly above the limit may indicate misuse but is very unlikely to pose a health risk. The APVMA MRL standard applies to domestically produced foods.
The MRLs in Schedule 20 of the Code may also be amended by FSANZ through the MRL proposal or an application process, where FSANZ considers requests for changes to MRLs to harmonise with overseas MRLs established by Codex or by another internationally recognised regulatory authority. The MRLs in Schedule 20 apply to both imported foods and foods produced domestically.

What is FSANZ’s responsibility in relation to MRLs?

Setting MRLs enables the appropriate and safe use of agricultural and veterinary chemicals. FSANZ is responsible for dietary exposure assessments of residues in the diet as part of the MRL setting process. FSANZ works closely with the APVMA on these assessments.
FSANZ considers requests to harmonise MRLs with international MRLs established by Codex or MRLs established in another country. Stakeholders can apply to have these requests considered through a proposal or application process.
FSANZ generally prepares one MRL proposal a year to consider harmonisation requests and MRL variations requested by the APVMA. The APVMA may request MRL variations in the Code to reflect regulatory decisions it has made as part of APVMA chemical reviews and to seek other variations that are outside the scope of changes it may make in the Code. FSANZ also considers variations to Schedule 20 though the MRL application process.
General enquiries about MRLs can be directed to
Read more about changes to MRLs

Who monitors and enforces chemical residue levels in food?

The states and territories enforce food standards, including MRLs. Imported food is also inspected by the Department of Agriculture to ensure it complies with these standards.
A number of Commonwealth and state and territory agencies undertake surveillance programs for chemical residues. For example, FSANZ often looks at chemical residues in its Australian Total Diet Study (ATDS) and the Department of Agriculture undertakes the National Residue Survey. The levels of chemicals found in food in Australia are consistently low and well below levels established by the APVMA. The ATDS consistently shows that the trace levels of agvet residues present in ready-to-eat foods pose no health concern for consumers.

What about New Zealand?

New Zealand has its own standards for chemical residues and the New Zealand Government enforces these standards. However, the Australian and New Zealand Governments agree that food produced in New Zealand that complies with New Zealand’s chemical residue standards may be sold in Australia, and vice versa. New Zealand also has a Total Diet Study which looks for chemical residues.

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