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The New Regulations on Pesticides
Adapted from Pure Facts, September 1996, Vol. 20, No. 7

The New Regulations

On August 3 President Clinton signed into law a bill which will change the regulation of pesticides used on foods. But this leaves Feingold families with many uncertainties over how this might affect food additives.

The Food Quality Protection Act was passed with overwhelming support by both the Senate and House, and was approved by consumer and industry groups which generally find themselves on opposing sides. The main issue was: How far should the law go in protecting the public from the risk of cancer triggererd by exposure to pesticides used on foods? How bad must a pesticide be before it is considered too dangerous to use?

The law will require that pesticides be judged to cause no more than one additional case of cancer for every one million people who are exposed to it during their lifetime. It replaces the 1960 Delaney Clause, which states that no chemical could be deliberately added to food if it was found to cause cancer in humans or animals. While Delaney did not address pesticides which are sprayed on crops, it did apply to the pesticide residue which would be found in processed food.

At the time the Delaney Clause was adopted, the technology for identifying chemical residue in foods was primitive by today's standards. It is now possible to detect such residue in minute quantities. Critics of the current regulations pointed out that new pesticides were being excluded so as a result, older ones, which actually posed greater risks, were continuing to be used.

The details of the new regulations are being worked out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and they will be enforced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It will be several years before the effects of this new law show up in the supermarket. Unfortunately for consumer advocates, the new federal law will prevent states from enacting stricter standards for products grown in their state.

How will this relate to food additives?

Although the Delaney Clause will no longer apply to pesticides, it is still in effect regarding food additives. FAUS has long protested that this law has been repeatedly violated and ignored, but it nevertheless has been a powerful deterrent to the introduction of even more food additives than we now have. [The best example of such a violation is the continued use of Red No. 3, which is an acknowledged carcinogen.] Bills continue to be introduced to do away with Delaney altogether, but the Clause has withstood such assaults for many years. Its fate may be determined by the outcome of the elections in November; a pro-business Congress and Administration could finally repeal this protection.

Encouraging developments & remaining questions

It is a major victory for environmentalists that this new regulation will take into account the fact that pesticides are potentially more damaging for the very young or those in poor health. Another plus is that the EPA will also look at the potential for pesticides to add estrogen-like compounds into our food and water; these have been cited as possible causes for increases in breast cancer and for reduced fertility in animals and humans.

We do not know how the EPA will reach the conclusion that a particular chemical will cause no more than one new cancer per million people. (One of the loopholes in this brand new law is that it allows the use of pesticides with double the risk -- 2 cancers per million -- if growers convince EPA that the riskier pesticide is necessary.) It is also unclear if there will be any acknowledgment that consumers rarely eat only one single synthetic chemical at a time. What happens when one consumes an apple with one pesticide and grapes with another? what is the effect of mixing the pesticide residue on food with synthetic dyes, with medicine, or with alcohol?

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Updated 5/13/08