Food Safety

By Spencer, Peter L. | Consumers' Research Magazine, September 1992 | Go to article overview

Food Safety


Spencer, Peter L., Consumers' Research Magazine


Although widely heralded by experts as one of the safest--if not the safest--in the world, the American food supply frequently becomes the subject of controversy, with contentious reports about pesticide residues, lax government monitoring, and the like.

Food safety was back in the news recently, for example, when a Federal Court of Appeals ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must remove any farm chemicals from the market that leave residues in processed foods if the Agency finds them to be carcinogenic--even if the amount of cancer risk is considered by experts to be "negligible."

The July ruling overturned a four-year EPA practice allowing such pesticides so long as they pose less than a minimal risk of cancer. (That is, less than one extra cancer in one million people, over a lifetime.) Such a standard, considered by experts to be equivalent to a risk of no extra cancers, allowed for the use of certain beneficial pesticides that nevertheless had been shown to cause tumors under the high-dose conditions of animal tests.

Without addressing whether the Agency's standard created a hazard, the Court said it was not strict enough to meet the so-called Delaney Clause requirements of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

"Congress intended to ban all carcinogenic food additives, regardless of amount or significance of risk as the only safe alternative," noted the Court's unanimous opinion. Because of Congress's unambiguous intent, the Court concluded that any regulatory interpretation of the statute is for Congress to decide, not the EPA, or the courts for that matter.

The characterization of the decision by activists who filed the suit set up one side of a debate that is expected to ensue in coming months when Congress seeks to address the issue.

"This decision will provide a powerful catalyst to force American agriculture to get off the pesticide treadmill," Albert Meyerhoff, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The New York Times. "It will substantially improve protection of public health as well by removing known carcinogens from the food supply."

Against such assertions, which are sure to raise concern among consumers, runs a large body of evidence supplied by the scientific community suggesting some efforts to eliminate pesticide residues are misguided.

Putting food safety risks in perspective is essential for insuring that resources used to increase the safety of the food supply are well spent. …

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