THE release last week of a federal report on pesticide residues comes as food producers await the unveiling of the Clinton administration's long-expected reform of food safety laws.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) tested 5,750 samples of 12 kinds of fruits and vegetables. ``Generally, detected pesticide residues were well below ... established tolerances,'' the USDA announced.
The USDA chose commodities (collected in 1992) based on their popularity with the public, and in particular with infants and children. Also, the study sought to mirror US production and import patterns. For example, 60 percent of the apples came from Washington state. Produce from Texas, California, Florida, Michigan, and New York also was tested.
The survey responds to concerns raised by a National Academy of Sciences report that questioned whether pesticide tolerances set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protected children adequately. Data from the USDA survey will fill gaps in the EPA's data, says Larry Elworth, USDA special assistant for pesticide policy.
John McCarthy, vice president of science and regulation at the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, says that President Clinton will propose ``a reasonable certainty of no harm'' as the standard for setting pesticide tolerances.
``We believe there is a reasonable certainty of no harm now,'' Dr. McCarthy says. ``There is no health issue out there.''
But he adds that the public lacks confidence that the EPA has been consistent in setting standards. Farmers in the US spray $6.6 billion worth of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and rodenticides each year.
Al Wagner, a professor of food science at Texas A&M University, insists that there are no risks under the current system. In tests conducted by the Food and Drug Administration last year, Dr. Wagner says, no residues were found on 65 percent of samples. Less than 1 percent had residues in excess of tolerances. And even then, he says, tolerances are set from ``10,000 to 100,000 percent'' below dangerous levels.
Hugh Ewart, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Washington State, notes that part of the Clinton package will rectify the scientifically outmoded Delaney clause. Written in the 1950s, that legislation could unnecessarily force 37 chemicals for 100 crops off the market.