EPA Targets Pesticide at Dinner Table : Food: Agency says it’s time to worry about more than the residue on crops leaving the farm.


In expansive new proposals, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to regulate the amount of pesticide residues on the food we eat--everything from supermarket apples to ketchup.

The agency says it’s time to worry about the amounts of chemicals that show up in meals, not just the residues on crops leaving the farm. The idea in proposed legislation and in new rules under discussion would be to set limits on how much residue is acceptable on food.

That sounds like a common-sense notion, but it’s not the way things are. The first pesticide regulations sought to ensure that farmers weren’t misusing chemicals, said Dr. Lynn Goldman, the EPA’s top official in charge of pesticide regulation.

Concerns about the safety of food followed. The starting point under the new plan is food safety, moving backward in the food chain to the farm.


“It’s a great idea,” said Richard Wiles, who is in charge of pesticide issues at the Environmental Working Group, an organization that closely watches the impact of agriculture on the environment.

Between harvest and the dinner table, pesticides wear off, are washed off, get peeled or are diluted during processing and mixing. The government now sets different tolerances for pesticide residues in processed foods such as corn oil only if the residue is concentrated in the end product.

The agency also may propose to set tolerances--acceptable residues of chemicals that may cause cancer or other ailments--based more on how foods are likely to be consumed.

Tolerances on corn now consider the whole plant with the husk on. Iceberg lettuce tolerances don’t consider that the lettuce is washed and most people throw away the outer leaves.


In recent testimony before a House agriculture subcommittee, Goldman tried to portray the idea of setting different tolerances at the farm gate, the food processor and the retail store as farmer friendly.

“If we took that dinner-plate standard and applied it at the farm gate, then we might not be able to allow a perfectly reasonable use of the pesticides to meet the needs of the farmers,” she said.

Industry doesn’t like the pesticide legislation offered by the Administration because a more conservative way of measuring risk will lead to tighter restrictions all around. Regulators could no longer consider the benefit of higher, more efficient production of crops when setting tolerances in raw goods, for instance.

The bill would take into account the special vulnerability of children because of their immature bodies and tendency to consume more fruits and vegetables by body weight. Other exposures, such as bug sprays in houses, would be considered as well.


The idea of different acceptable residues along the food chain means the Food and Drug Administration will be concentrating more of its inspectors at canneries and supermarkets.

The change would create an enforcement nightmare that the government lacks the money and people to enforce, industry contends. And there’s the prospect of fees to pay for it all.

The government, for instance, may be setting safe levels for pesticides in a range of products, such as fresh tomatoes, tomato paste, ketchup, spaghetti sauce and stewed tomatoes, said Juanita Duggan, chief lobbyist for the National Food Processors Assn.