During the 20th century, Americans shifted the task of watching out for their food safety from themselves to the government. Bite into an apple today, and you rely on the judgment of EPA administrator Carol Browner and other civil servants that it's safe.
Increasingly, as Americans become more health conscious and their concern about food quality rises, government is asked to make often-subjective scientific judgments on levels of risk in regulating the nation's food supply while also balancing political pressures from farmers, consumers, and environmentalists.
On Aug. 2, the Environmental Protection Agency pushed that trend a quantum-leap forward. Using a 1996 law, it arm-twisted manufacturers to curtail or ban two pesticides used for years on fruits and vegetables.
One big difference was this: For the first time, the government weighed the potential effects of pesticide residue on children. Yes, that's right. For the first time. In fact, the law required a margin of safety 10 times larger than previous limits set on cumulative exposure to traces of the chemicals.
To some, this is politics overriding science. In fact, the EPA decision-making process was so fraught with politics, such as late intervention on behalf of farmers by Vice President Al Gore, that critics say the process is as suspect as an apple with holes. Lawsuits are flying at the EPA.
But there's more to come. The Aug. 2 decision is just the opening of a decade-long campaign by the EPA to review nearly 10,000 uses of pesticides to weed out those deemed unsafe under the tougher criteria.
America's farmers, who use one billion tons of pesticide a year, are bracing themselves to switch over to often-less-effective pesticides, including expensive organic methods. No one knows the exact costs of EPA's decisions on consumers or farmers. The economic burden of the nation's quest for ultimate food safety could be substantial.
At some point, national regulation of agro-industry may become too unwieldy, distrusted, and unenforceable. Like welfare, there may be a demand for local solutions.
Already, millions of farmers and consumers are opting out of this national food system. Leaders of this movement, such as Eliot Coleman of Cape Rosier, Maine, go beyond pushing for organic farming. They seek strong ties between producers and consumers that lead to self-regulation of such issues as pesticides. Organic farming is a $4 billion industry, and local "farmers' markets" are probably larger still.
The EPA, led by the 1996 law, was probably right to take this initial step. But the haste and politics of the decisionmaking leave a risky residue on the future of food regulation. There must be a better way.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society