In the arcane world of food additive regulation, tolerance is a finely used term, but it boils down to what parents of 2-year-olds learn quickly: It's how much you let 'em get away with.
For example, some chemicals are banned entirely by federal regulations from the nation's food supply because they have been shown to cause cancer, genetic deformities or other health problems.
Other chemicals, synthetic or natural, are prohibited if their "residues" in food exceed certain "tolerance" levels. These tolerances depend on the chemicals involved and how they measure up to federal criteria.
Wide Range of Items
Chemical residues in food cover a wide range of items, including fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, poultry and eggs. And they also involve residues from man-made chemicals such as DDT (banned years ago) and naturally occurring substances such aflatoxin.
One of the major sources of food contamination is the array of pesticides used on crops to control insects, plant diseases and weeds. It's a problem for both domestic producers and foreign growers who ship produce to the U.S. market.
Two Agriculture Department economists, Catherine Greene and Glenn Zepp, say that American consumers are eating more fruits and vegetables--and are getting more persnickety about the health effects of chemical residues on produce.
Greene and Zepp, writing in the National Food Review, a quarterly USDA magazine, noted 1988 industry figures showing that nearly 18% of consumers polled said they were concerned enough by the possible effects of residues to change their buying habits.
The survey, conducted by the Packer, a produce industry magazine, showed that another 64% were concerned but had not altered their buying habits. Only about 19% said they were not very worried.
According to Greene and Zepp, consumers "may be wary of the effectiveness of current food safety regulations."
7% Trust Current Laws
For example, they said in their report, when small groups of Redbook magazine readers were asked about food safety, only 7% of those who replied said they trusted current laws to guarantee a safe food supply. Seventy percent said they did not.
"Few consumers appreciate the scope of the U.S. food regulatory system--the inspection and testing procedures for monitoring food production, processing and marketing, which has generally given Americans a safe food supply," the report said. "Also new steps are being taken to improve monitoring to fill the gaps in pesticide regulation."
Although more than a dozen federal agencies have a hand in the regulation of produce quality, safety, appearance, freshness, labeling, marketing and imports, only two are involved in pesticide enforcement.
The Environmental Protection Agency determines which pesticides may be registered for use on food crops. The EPA also sets tolerances for those chemicals in fruits, vegetables and other foods for human consumption.
Food and Drug Administration officials monitor and enforce the pesticide tolerances set by EPA on both domestic and imported products.
The Agriculture Department has charge of the inspection of meat and poultry and processed food items containing those products.
Greene and Zepp noted that Congress last year amended the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, which requires that pesticides be registered with EPA for legal use on food crops.
The amendments include a 1997 deadline for testing, reregistration and possible cancellation of older chemicals, and a faster track for registering new chemicals.
One of the basic problems in the government's registration process for pesticides used on food crops has been the rapid growth in the consumption of some fruits and vegetables.