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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Food Safety Law Under Fire

Air Date: Week of

NPR's Brenda Wilson reports from Washington on the renewed debate over the Delaney Clause, the 35 year-old law which bans carcinogenic additives from processed foods. New EPA administrator Carol Browner says that the ability to detect almost infinitesimal traces of chemicals in food has rendered the law obsolete, and in a move that's surprised some environmentalists, Browner has suggested that Congress should consider revising the law.


NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley.

How much is too much, when it comes to processed food containing chemicals that may cause cancer? Since 1958, when Congress passed the Delaney Clause, the answer has been: even a trace is unacceptable. Environmentalists and consumer groups say the Delaney Clause is one of their strongest legal allies. But 35 years after it was written, the Delaney clause is under fire. Food processors say science has made the law obsolete. . . and to the surprise of some environmentalists, so does the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. NPR's Brenda Wilson has this report from Washington.

WILSON: The Delaney Clause has been the environmentalists' one sure card for thirty-five years. So understandably, they might be reluctant to give it up, even for a friend -- in this case, the Clinton Administration. Under Delaney, no cancer-causing ingredient, pesticide, or food additive is allowed at any level in processed foods. But science has advanced considerably since it became law. Researchers have a better understanding of how cancer develops, and what causes injury to cells. They are also now able to identify tiny traces of chemical compounds -- forty years ago they were lucky if they could detect DDT at ten or a hundred parts per million.

REISBOROUGH: Way back in 1958, it made a lot of sense to say if you can find any DDT in your milk, that milk should not be drunk.

WILSON: Bob Reisborough of the University of California-Berkeley is a leading expert on pesticides, who has studied their effects on wildlife in the field and in the laboratories.

REISBOROUGH: The sensitivity has increased and increased and increased, so that now we can detect levels of potential carcinogens at much, much, much lower levels. There has to be a point when we say okay, above this then we do worry about the risk; below that, the risk becomes trivial in comparison with all the other risks we face.

WILSON: The Delaney Clause applies only to carcinogens found in processed foods, like apple juice, raisins or flour. It does not apply to raw commodities such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Here, the relative risks of what are considered insignificant traces of pesticides are allowed, and weighed against the benefits of crop protection. Using this same standard, in 1988 the Environmental Protection Agency attempted to introduce some flexibility into Delaney. But environmental and consumer groups sued to hold EPA to the letter of the law. Last year, San Francisco's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Delaney, it concluded, was an absolute prohibition against any pesticides in processed foods. In the wake of that ruling, earlier this month, EPA released a list of 35 chemicals which have to be banned if the law is not changed. John Vroom is the president of the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, which opposed the environmentalists.

VROOM: The difference between their position and our position is really a matter of continued availability of some of these older products based on a very strict interpretation of a legal question, but having nothing to do with the matter of public safety. We don't want to put products into the marketplace that don't meet an absolutely strict test of assurance that science can tell us represents no human health concern.

WILSON: EPA Administrator Carol Browner essentially concurs that there is no unreasonable risk, and is expected to ask Congress to re-examine Delaney. In the meantime, she says she will comply with the law. Environmentalists were caught off-guard by her suggestion that the law should be relaxed. After all, she had come with strong environmental credentials. Their first reading was that she had unwittingly stumbled onto a minefield. Al Meyerhoff is an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed the suit against the EPA. He says NRDC is willing to work with Browner, but won't back away from Delaney's zero-risk philosophy. Meyerhoff argues that carcinogenicity is only one of the reasons we need to reduce the amount of chemicals in the environment.

MEYERHOFF: We seem to have a fixation with cancer and perhaps we should, given its horrible consequences. But pesticides also cause nerve damage, they cause reproductive harm, they adversely affect the immune system. These are poisons, and they're polluting our lakes and rivers. Is this necessary? I think that the challenge to the Clinton Administration and to the new EPA Administrator, Carol Browner, is to give leadership to find a way that we can continue to produce our food but do so with fewer chemicals.

WILSON: EPA's Carol Browner clearly sides with those who think that time and technology have outstripped the Delaney Clause. Her first test will be convincing environmentalists that they can be a bit more flexible now that they're sitting across the table from a friend. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Wilson in Washington.



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