The Clinton Administration on Tuesday announced the first plan for a major overhaul of food safety and pesticide laws since the early 1970s, proposing to set slightly looser standards for cancer-causing chemicals in processed foods while outlining policies that eventually would phase out the use of dangerous pesticides on fruits and vegetables.
The package would have a major impact on farmers nationwide, who would win new incentives for using environmentally friendly techniques and face new restrictions on the use of pesticides. The Administration said the plan was designed to ensure that by the year 2000, 75% of all U.S. farmland would use integrated pest management, a technique in which soil improvements, pest-resistant plant species and certain insects themselves are used to reduce the need for chemical pesticides.
The proposed reforms received mixed reviews from environmental groups but favorable comments initially from lawmakers.
Environmental groups hailed the package’s emphasis on making fresh fruits and vegetables safer for children and on encouraging safer farming practices. But they denounced the Administration’s proposal to relax the “Delaney clause"--a blanket ban on cancer-causing pesticide residues in processed foods.
“The statute (in place) today focuses primarily on processed foods. That’s what people were eating in the 1950s. Today our diet is very different,” EPA Administrator Carol Browner said Tuesday in defense of the proposal. She called the array of changes sought by the Administration “a comprehensive package to protect all members of the public, particularly children, to reduce pesticide use, to get safer alternatives out on the market.”
In California, where laws governing the use of agricultural chemicals are more stringent in many cases than federal law, the impact of the package would be less profound. But the initiatives almost certainly would boost the state’s burgeoning community of farmers raising crops organically and with minimal use of pesticides, as the Agriculture Department expands its efforts to assist such methods.
Tuesday’s presentations followed an announcement in June that the Administration would seek to reduce the use of pesticides and improve efforts to ensure food safety. Although many of the proposed policy changes could be implemented by the President without congressional approval, the Administration hopes to have almost all of its initiatives written into law. That, Administration officials said, would establish solid support for the reforms and discourage future administrations from tinkering with them.
Although the proposal would relax the Delaney clause, officials said it would strengthen and standardize a patchwork of often-conflicting laws governing the amount of pesticide residue permitted on food sold in U.S. markets. Under the plan, virtually all of the nation’s most dangerous pesticides would be forced off the market within three years unless manufacturers and farmers could prove that their removal would “severely disrupt the food supply.”
Over a seven-year period, the roughly 600 pesticides now in use on crops throughout the United States would be subjected to rigorous new reviews, and new maximum tolerance levels would be set by the federal government.
In setting those levels, the Administration proposed a standard that would allow concentrations of pesticide in food posing a risk of no more than one added cancer case for every 1 million people in a span of 70 years. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency would conduct new studies on the effects of pesticide residues on the nervous and immune systems of consumers, with special emphasis on children’s health. That information, in turn, would help them further refine safe levels of pesticide residues.
This “negligible-risk” standard would replace the stricter Delaney clause in the case of processed foods. In the case of raw fruits and vegetables, however, the negligible-risk standard would represent a tightening of laws in place, which allow the use of some dangerous pesticides if there is a strong economic advantage to doing so.