The European Commission wants Spain to “urgently” explain why it has decided to import crops sprayed with an EU-banned pesticide deemed potentially harmful for children, according to a letter seen by POLITICO.

In an effort to relieve pressure on the EU’s agri-food sector, the Commission this month decided member countries could set their own, temporary rules for the amount of pesticide residues found in imported crops, known as Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs). The measure was approved as countries panicked over the prospect that their livestock farmers would run out of feed for their animals, as Ukraine’s grain shipments dwindled due to the war.

Spain, one of the bloc’s livestock heavyweights, jumped on the emergency derogation to relax the import standards for maize from Brazil and Argentina, citing a need to shield its husbandry sector from “important disruptions” that could compromise its food security.

In a letter to Spanish authorities, dated March 18 and seen by POLITICO, the Commission asks Madrid “to provide, as a matter of urgency, the rationale for coming to a different conclusion than EFSA as regards safety.”

In the letter, the Commission refers to a nonbinding assessment that EFSA was asked to produce to guide countries’ decisions, saying that, for both substances, EFSA found “there [was] no margin to set higher MRLs than the existing ones without compromising safety, for both food and feed.”

A Commission spokesperson later said the EU executive is still waiting to receive a full risk assessment from Spain on its decision and had asked Madrid for details about how exactly it would ensure that imports of maize are used safely and appropriately after a preliminary report from Spain showed the final feed mix would be compliant with EU standards. 

The Commission has also asked Portugal to submit a similar risk assessment after it also moved to relax rules to bring in feed for its livestock farmers, the spokesperson said.

Chlorpyrifos was banned in the EU in 2020 after EFSA linked it to brain damage in children and classified it as presumably being toxic for human reproduction. The insecticide, which was widely sprayed on crops such as broccoli and oranges, has also been banned in the U.S., which last month maintained that no chlorpyrifos residues would be tolerated on food because they were deemed “not safe.”

A Spanish government official said that work was ongoing between Madrid and the Commission to answer “various technical questions” that have been raised. The official said that the measure was approved for the period deemed necessary to stabilize potential feed shortages, adding that the imported maize would be used as one of many ingredients in animal feed formulations.

The decision by Spain — which has already come into effect and will last six months — also relaxed maize MRLs for dichlorvos, which is also banned in the EU and for which EFSA’s assessment found that “consumer health risks are likely.”