SAN FRANCISCO — Warning: This product may contain a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, or birth defects or other reproductive harm.
Anxiety has filtered through the California food industry as farmer, manufacturer and grocer alike await the soon-to-be-published regulations ordering public disclosure of potentially harmful chemicals present in foods, beverages and household products.
The mandatory warnings, for those compounds known to cause cancer or birth defects, became necessary as a result of the successful passage of Proposition 65, the antitoxics initiative, in 1986.
"I know of no worry that is greater in our business activities right now (than the pending requirements)," said Robert D. Rossio, chairman of the California League of Food Processors, at the group's annual meeting here.
The comments came during a lengthy discussion on how the state will implement various facets of Proposition 65, officially known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act.
Later this month, for instance, California's Health and Welfare Agency will specify how firms should alert consumers to the presence of chemicals considered health threats. The warnings are not just limited to foods but will be required wherever chemical hazards exist, such as in the workplace or from service station gas pump fumes.
The cautionary notices will be triggered when any of the designated substances are present at levels that pose a health risk under normal product usage or exposure. The language of the warning is not yet set, but the state's most recent proposal reads: "Warning: This product may contain a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, or birth defects or other reproductive harm."
Over the past year, 235 such carcinogens and toxins have been identified by the state. Working from this listing, the food industry, among others, must determine whether any consumer warnings for their products are warranted, particularly if harmful residues exceed existing state and federal standards.
Though its effects are far-reaching for many industries, it is in the neighborhood supermarket where Californians will likely be first confronted with any Proposition 65-related warnings. Still uncertain, though, is how this cautionary information will be provided.
Among the options are warning labels on products, supermarket shelf tags indicating an ingredient hazard, large signs that encompass entire sections of a food store (such as those areas containing produce or alcoholic beverages), or the food industry's current preference: a toll-free telephone number that the curious can call to discover whether their canned vegetables, room deodorizers or wine contains a potentially harmful substance.
A worst-case interpretation of the initiative would lead to warnings being posted throughout a grocery store, although this scenario is deemed highly unlikely according to a member of the Proposition 65 Scientific Advisory Panel, a group appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian to assist in the initiative's implementation.
"Just about everything in a market would be labeled with warnings if there was strict compliance because there are trace amounts of these chemicals in everything," said Wendell W. Kilgore Ph.D., a UC Davis environmental toxicologist who serves as the advisory panel's chair. "But there are very few (of the harmful compounds) present in foods in sufficient enough levels that they will actually require a notice."
Kilgore, whose group is continuing to compile the carcinogen and reproductive toxin list, said that the most likely hazardous chemicals in food, at present, would be nitrosamines, ethyl alcohol, some pesticides and lead.
However, Kilgore offered several analogies that illustrated the difficulty of pinpointing significant hazards in food and elsewhere. One such example went to the heart of the problem in warning about cancer agents.
"Everyone drinking chlorinated water is consuming a carcinogen," he said. "That's because when you chlorinate drinking water (for purity) you produce chloroform (in minute levels), and chloroform is a carcinogen."
He noted, however, that the federal government's standard for allowable levels of chloroform in drinking water is 100 parts per billion. The actual average, meanwhile, for the chemical in tap water throughout the country is 83 ppb.
Though there is uncertainty as to how the warning situation for foods will ultimately take shape, the state official responsible for implementing Proposition 65 gave some indication as to the final regulations at the food processors' meeting.
Thomas E. Warriner, a Health and Welfare Agency undersecretary, said he foresees a use of both signs and toll-free numbers.