Pest Patrol

The Clinton administration's pesticide policy: on balance, a nuisance


In September, the Clinton administration unveiled its game plan for pesticide regulation. If it's enacted into law, the big winners may be the pests.

In one positive change, the new policy would drop the "Delaney Clause," which bans all carcinogens from processed food. In its place would be a "negligible risk" standard for all foods. This allows pesticides that cause a risk of fewer than one extra case of cancer per million consumers exposed to the substance over a 70-year period.

But the new policy would also:

• Streamline pesticide registration by "sunsetting" pesticide ingredients. For each ingredient in its pesticides, a manufacturer would have to prove every 15 years that toxins meet "negligible risk" standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The standards may change at any time, and a product with several ingredients might have a different "sunset" for each ingredient. Currently, manufacturers aren't required to reregister their products for EPA approval unless evidence of harm surfaces.

• Prevent the economic benefits of a pesticide from being considered in the approval process "except in exceptional cases involving significant disruption of the food supply," in which case the product would get a five-year reprieve.

• Make risk standards stricter by basing them on the tolerance levels of children rather than adults.

• Prohibit the export of banned ingredients or products.

• Authorize the EPA to remove pesticides from the market without warning if suspected health problems arise.

• Set national goals to eliminate all "high-risk" (that is, man-made) pesticides and institute "Integrated Pest Management" controls that would require crop rotation, natural predators, and the like by the year 2000.

Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy says the changes will assure safer food "while maintaining the economic viability of the American farmer."

But as effective pesticides are taken off the market, says Mark Maslyn of the American Farm Bureau Federation, farmers are worried that "this policy will result in higher [produce] prices and lack of product." Maslyn voices other concerns, including the prospect of "citizen suit authority," which lets activists sue private landowners on behalf of the government for alleged violations, and skittish food processors who will "demand foods be pesticide-free if there's even a perception of risk."

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) have sponsored bills that codify the administration's proposed policy. It is also part of the Food Quality Protection Act, introduced in September by Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.).