What requirements must dates comply with to be allowed on the European market?
What are mandatory requirements?
All foods, including dates, sold in the European Union must be safe. This also applies to imported products. Additives must be approved. Levels of harmful contaminants, such as pesticide residues and mycotoxins, must be limited.
Contaminants control in dates
The European Commission Regulation sets maximum levels for certain contaminants in food products. This regulation is frequently updated, and apart from the limits set for general foodstuffs, there are a number of specific contaminant limits for specific products, including dates. The most common requirements regarding contaminants in dates are related to pesticide residues, microbiological organisms, foreign bodies (such as insects), preservatives and food additives.
Contamination with insects
Contamination with insects seems to be one of the biggest issues for dates on the European market. The main pests affecting dates are the carob moth (Ectomyelois ceratoniae), the lesser date moth (Batrachedra amydraula), and the raisin moth (Cadra figulilella). They can develop inside the fruit and continue their growth upon arrival at the packaging plant and during storage. The development of those insects is timed with the seasonal occurrence of date fruits. During 2019, there were two official registered cases of dates withdrawal from the European market because of the presence of insects.
Preventive measures after harvesting are recommended. Currently, fumigation with phosphine or CO2 is the preferred way to control insect development in stored dates. Methyl bromide as a fumigant is banned in the European Union. Temperature treatments are also used to prevent insect development. Adult insects and eggs die if exposed to temperatures above 50°C for long enough. Cold storage can also be used to prevent infestation in places where insects are likely to be present in ordinary storage.
The European Union has set maximum residue levels (MRLs) for pesticides in and on food products. Products containing more pesticide residues than allowed will be withdrawn from the European market. The majority of European importers will request a detailed test on the presence of a large number of pesticides (sometimes more than 500).
The European Union regularly publishes a list of approved pesticides that are authorised for use in the European Union. This list is frequently updated. During 2020 and 2021, several pesticides were and will be withdrawn from the European market, namely: beta-cyfluthrin, benalaxyl, bromoxynil, mancozeb, benfluralin, chlorpyrifos, chlorpyrifos-methyl and thiacloprid. One of the most important changes, relevant for date producers, is the level of the insecticide chlorpyrifos, which is set to 0.01 ppm as of November 2020. Chlorpyrifos is widely used in date production to control fruit worm, caterpillars, mites and aphids.
In 2020, the European Union implemented a set of policies and actions called the European Green Deal, with the aim to make the European economy more sustainable and climate neutral by 2050. The action plan also includes a 50% reduction in the use of pesticides and an increase of the share of agricultural land used for organic farming to 25% by 2030. This means that many pesticides will be banned and residue levels will decrease gradually over the next years.
The presence of aerobic bacteria and/or yeasts and moulds is an important cause of microbiological contamination of dates. The standard procedure before exporting includes laboratory testing of dates for the presence of pathogenic microorganisms such as yeasts, moulds, E. coli, Salmonella, coliforms and Staphylococcus. Dates are also susceptible to infection by aflatoxins after the fruits ripen and soften, providing a suitable environment for aflatoxin production.
The level of aflatoxin for dried dates intended for direct human consumption or for use as an ingredient in foodstuffs must be below 2 μg/kg for aflatoxin B1 and 4 μg/kg for the total aflatoxin content (B1, B2, G1 and G2). Proper drying and storage/transport in a low-humidity atmosphere are some of the most important preventive measures to decrease the risk of mycotoxin contamination of dates.
European authorities can reject products if they have undeclared or unauthorised extraneous materials or if the levels of these materials are too high. Although European consumers prefer dates without any additives, glucose syrup, sugars, flour (usually in chopped dates) and vegetable oils can be optional ingredients in date production. If any of those ingredients is used, it must be declared in the ingredients list, as well as in the product description. If a preservative is used (such as potassium sorbate), the quantity used must be declared too.
What additional requirements do buyers often have?
Together with the mandatory requirements, many private requests have become equally important. These include compliance with food safety, quality and sustainability standards.
Quality of dates is determined by the allowed percentage of defective produce, by total number of fruits. The industry has defined several criteria for quality, but some of them, such as taste and flavour, are subjective and cannot be easily determined by physical characteristics.
Specific quality standards for dates have not been officially defined by the European Union. The most common standards used are the standards published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and by the Codex Alimentarius.
The basic quality requirements for dates are:
Absence of: insects, damages, moulds, fermentation and foreign smell or taste;
Moisture content: maximum of 26% for cane sugar varieties and 30% for invert sugar varieties. However, for Deglet Nour dates in their natural state, the maximum moisture content is 30%;
Presentation: separated into individual fruits (pitted or unpitted), clusters (dates with the main bunch stem attached) and stems (stems that are separated from the rachis, with the fruit attached naturally). Dates can be chopped, too;
Additional ingredients: must be clearly indicated. Dates are often produced without any additions, but some producers use preservatives, usually potassium sorbate or coatings such as glycose syrup or vegetable oil.