Activists Quit Food Safety Panel

Seven members of an Environmental Protection Agency committee on pesticide levels in food have resigned to protest what they see as a lack of federal action to reduce the amount of toxic residue allowed on fresh fruits and vegetables. The resignations from the Tolerance Reassessment Advisory Committee coincide with its latest two-day meeting in Washington.

The 50-member committee was set up last year by Vice President Al Gore as a way for the EPA gather the diversity of ideas for implementing the National Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (NFQPA). The committee is charged with assessing toxicity levels of pesticide residue on foods in order to determine if tolerance levels should be adjusted or certain pesticides banned. In addition, the committee must determine whether aerial or ground applications of pesticides pose health risks.

Decent into dissent
But the panel has been mired by internal disagreements among its members, who represent interests ranging from environmentalists and health safety advocates to farmers and representatives of the chemical industry and agribusiness. Health and environment members consistently positioned themselves against business and industry members over how much scientific evidence is needed before the EPA acts. Those pulling out—including the Farmworker Support Committee, Consumers Union, Farmworker Justice Fund, National Campaign for Pesticide Policy Reform, the Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund—admit to the power struggle among committee members.

"I think there probably was a good faith effort on the administration's part, but that effort was hijacked along the way," said Erik Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Olson lays the primary responsibility for the troubles on the pesticide industry and agribusiness lobbyists and their allies in Congress, but adds that the Clinton administration "has let it derail" through delays and inaction.

In particular, the departing groups have expressed frustration over the fact that EPA will not be making across-the-board decisions on carbamates and organophosphates by August of 1999.

"The panel is a consensus process that takes forever and is an invitation to endless debate," said Ned Groth, PhD, technical policy and public service director for the Consumers Union (Washington, D.C.). "The agency needs to make hard decisions based on the available data and go forward."

A different look at risk
But the EPA faces a major challenge for properly implementing NFQPA because it requires the development of new risk assessment methods.

"Tackling scientific issues that are prescribed by Congress, but have yet to be developed scientifically, is going to lead to delays," said Carl Winter, PhD, director, FoodSafe Program, and associate extension food toxicologist with the Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California-Davis. "The science is simply not there to do the analyses that Congress has told EPA they need to be able to do."

Winter offers the determination of cumulative risk for organophoshpates as an example. Part of implementing NFQPA requires treating entire families of substances as an entity rather than as individual chemicals. Because risk assessment typically has addressed individual chemicals, these assessments need much more refining before they are capable of reflecting accurate and effective data.

"To develop methodology that will then take all of those individual chemicals and put them into a 'super class' like organophosphates presents enormous challenges," said Winter.

Further complicating EPA's task is that risk assessment is not an exact science and requires making certain assumptions. The diverse nature of the committee means differing opinions about which assumptions are valid.

"You can do preliminary risk assessment where you make assumptions about exposure, etc. and you can deduce the risks are too high. We've seen this in preliminary assessments from EPA, as well as groups like the Environmental Working Group and Consumer's Union," said Winter. "They have an approach that—based upon their assumptions and interpretation—says the risks are too high. They feel that that's sufficient for EPA to take regulatory action."

Winter adds that the departure of these groups from the committee will limit their ability to be represented. Other sources claim that this runs counter to the goals of the departing members' organizations.

"To have these groups resign is not in the public's best interest," said Jay Vroom, president of the American Crop Protection Association, a trade group representing pesticide makers. "Are they for sound science that protects kids or political grandstanding that grabs headlines?"

Peter Robertson, EPA acting deputy administrator said he was disappointed that the activist groups bowed out, but said the agency remained "absolutely committed" to assessing the dangers posed by some pesticides and removing from the market those chemicals that pose a particular danger to children as required by the 1996 law.

"We too wish that this process could go faster," wrote Robertson. "But we are on schedule for assessing risks and taking risk-reduction actions beginning in August as the law prescribes."

By Scott Hegenbart