Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) is sponsoring legislation that would lower the amount of farm chemicals on fruit and vegetables that can be considered acceptable. And last week, Assemblyman Lloyd G. Connelly (D-Sacramento) introduced a bill that would require the state to consider children's susceptibility to pesticide residues in setting allowable levels for the chemicals in food.
"Pesticides are clearly the most dangerous thing in the food supply," said Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "There is a very long list of pesticides that are clearly shown to cause cancer. Why are they still around and why does EPA take so long to get rid of them?"
Produce industry representatives, however, maintain that the health risk from the legal use of pesticides is negligible for both children and adults.
"If farm chemicals are used in accordance with the laws and regulations that exist, then the residues that result do not represent a safety hazard to consumers," said John McClung with the Center for Produce Quality in Alexandria, Va. "And the determination about what is safe should not be made by the produce industry or advocacy groups, but by toxicologists, food technologists and chemists."
Federal and state tests of produce find that as much as 50% of the fruit and vegetables analyzed contain no detectable amounts of chemicals. These same surveys indicate that only about 1% of the produce tested contains illegal pesticide residues.
"There are more acute hazards that the FDA is spending time on than Alar on apples," said Joe Madden, assistant director for microbiology with the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "There are more life-threatening food safety issues than looking at things like just pesticide residues."
Beyond the cancer question, though, is the harmful exposure to pesticides by farm workers or others.
The state of California reported that 1,507 people were exposed to potentially toxic concentrations of pesticides in 1987. Of these, 777 incidents occurred during agricultural applications of the chemicals. The others were results of contact with the compounds either during urban pest-control efforts, shipping, manufacturing or related activities.
One such case occurred in Orange County last year when at least five people experienced seizures after eating frozen \o7 taquitos \f7 that contained endrin, a banned pesticide.
Health officials determined that the highly toxic chemical was present in the tortillas, not the meat filling. But an investigation yielded no traces of the chemical at either the manufacturing site nor at the store. Officials speculated that the incident was sabotage.
In commenting on the case, the CDC stated that endrin, though banned in the United States since 1984, is still used in other countries. The compound has been responsible for more than 1,200 illnesses and 45 deaths in countries other than the United States.
The \o7 taquito \f7 poisoning episode demonstrates what critics of pesticide regulations have claimed could happen, however. Namely, compounds banned in this country are still being used by other nations that export food to the United States. Occasionally, these pesticides may turn up in the food sold here.
For almost a quarter century, state and local health officials have argued with Alta-Dena Dairy over the safety of the firm's raw certified milk. Throughout the dispute, there have been numerous recalls of the product because laboratory tests indicated the presence of salmonella bacteria.
The certified raw milk is no longer sold under the Alta-Dena label. Instead, the unpasteurized products are distributed by Stueve's Natural.
As a result of a recent lawsuit, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that the dairy must place a warning label on all its raw milk cartons. The cautionary statement warns high-risk groups, such as those with weakened immune systems, that "dangerous bacteria" may be present.
Officials for Stueve's said they would appeal the judge's warning label decision, if necessary, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and would continue producing the certified raw milk.