Progress on Pesticides

Jul 22, 1996 Issues: Health

Progress on Pesticides
July 22, 1996

The New York Times

In a remarkable bipartisan effort, and after more than a decade of trying, House Democrats and Republicans have reached agreement on regulating pesticides in food. This is a welcome and indeed surprising achievement given the House's 18-month effort to roll back important environmental protections.

The compromise negotiated in recent days gives something to the food industry and something to environmental and consumer groups. It would do away with the 38-year-old Delaney clause, the law that prohibits adding cancer-causing substances to processed foods but does not apply to fresh foods, which are allowed to contain cancer-causing residues.

Under the agreement, Delaney would be replaced by a broader but still tough standard for all pesticides regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The new standard would allow pesticide residues in processed and raw foods as long as there was a "reasonable certainty of no harm" to consumers. Reasonable certainty is generally defined as a one-in-a-million chance of causing cancer.

As a practical matter, that is actually more stringent than what is sometimes allowed today. The fact that Delaney does not apply to fresh foods has led to bizarre circumstances in which a new safer pesticide on raw tomatoes, for example, might be rejected because it formed a carcinogenic residue when processed as tomato paste or tomato soup, while an older pesticide, apt to cause more cancer deaths, was retained. With technology that can measure even the most minuscule risk of cancer posed by food substances, the food industry, supported by a decade-old report from the National Academy of Science, has long argued that Delaney's absolutist approach was outmoded.

The agreement favors national uniformity for pesticide-residue tolerances, which was sought by the food industry, although a state can still put warning labels on products that might pose a particular risk to its population. For consumers, the agreement calls for the E.P.A. to make more information about pesticides available through supermarket booklets. In addition, the agreement specifically takes into account the different effects that pesticides have on infants and children and offers them special protection.

Apart from its details, the agreement is most remarkable for how quickly it came together. Updating the Delaney clause has been a subject of Congressional debate since about 1980. A 1993 Clinton Administration proposal, offered in response to a Federal appeals court decision that would have required the E.P.A. to stringently enforce Delaney in pesticides, went nowhere. But with the court ruling still driving E.P.A. pesticide policy and an election campaign around the corner, longtime House members and frequent adversaries--Thomas Bliley, a Virginia Republican, and Henry Waxman of' California and John Dingell of Michigan, both Democrats--sat down and in just about a week reached agreement.

After an expected favorable vote by the full House this week, the hard work of three determined Congressmen deserves approval by the Senate and the Administration.