Residues from pesticides known to be carcinogenic should be permitted in processed foods under certain conditions, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said yesterday. The agency said that in certain cases, the economic and social benefits of a steady supply of a given foodstuff may outweigh the risk associated with the pesticide residue - even the risk associated with carcinogens, substances medically determined to cause cancer.
The announcement yesterday constitutes a sharp change in EPA policy, which previously required any pesticide known to cause cancer to be banned for use on food.
The new policy, the agency said, is to use risk-benefit analysis across the board in evaluating the health risk of new pesticides and in reviewing new information on pesticides currently in use.
The policy change drew immediate criticism from environmental and public-interest groups.
``I'm very distressed about this,'' said Janet Hathaway of the Natural Resources Defense Council. ``We may need either legislative relief or a legal challenge or both,'' she said.
Current law permits the EPA to use risk-benefit analysis to evaluate how much residue from noncarcinogenic pesticides can be allowed in foods.
But the agency has been forbidden by law from permitting the use of any pesticide that has been proved in laboratory tests to cause cancer in humans or animals.
Yesterday EPA said it would officially ignore a 1958 law governing its regulation of carcinogenic pesticides and substitute the same risk-benefit analysis for those substances that it uses for evaluating other health risks in pesticides.
The action was necessary to establish ``greater consistency'' in EPA's pesticide regulations, said John Moore, the agency's acting deputy administrator.
The decision to use a weaker standard in evaluating carcinogenic pesticides could have far-reaching implications for the use of pesticides on food, permitting the use of new, previously unapproved pesticides.
But the EPA contends that the overall impact of the policy change will reduce the threat to public health from pesticides.
The new policy comes just two weeks after Congress passed a law requiring the agency to review the safety of hundreds of pesticides now in use.
The new policy sets aside the requirements of a 30-year-old law that prohibits the presence of residues on processed foods of any pesticide found to cause cancer in animal tests.
The so-called ``Delaney clause'' of the 1958 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act is inconsistent with other, more far-reaching regulatory authority given EPA by the 1972 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, the agency maintains.
In place of the Delaney clause, the new EPA policy substitutes a so-called ``negligible risk approach'' - a method that measures the risk to humans on the basis of the potency of carcinogens and the levels of human exposure to such substances.
Critics of the new EPA policy say it could allow the introduction of new pesticides without proper safeguards, since the risk-benefit approach to pesticide review is still ill-defined.
EPA officials acknowledged the policy will provoke controversy.
``It's probably unrealistic to believe we won't be challenged'' legally, Mr. Moore said.