SAN ANTONIO — Produce industry representatives meeting here were reassured that the federal government would expand its efforts to monitor food for pesticide residues in the coming year.
Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter, who delivered the message at United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Assn.'s annual convention, said the increased expenditure was part of the Bush Administration's recent food safety initiative.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will spend an additional $40 million beginning in July in order to expand its chemical residue monitoring.
"The food safety issue is of major interest and importance to everyone in this room," Yeutter told an audience of about 8,000. "We (at USDA) are going to do more (to accumulate) pesticide residue data . . . We have to be credible with our data background (in order to set policy and regulations.)"
The secretary's announcement comes almost a year to the date when the Alar in apples controversy ignited. The resulting fallout was devastating to apple producers, who lost an estimated $250 million in the following months as sales disappeared.
Produce merchants were also hit hard when the alleged Chilean grape poisoning occurred just days after the Alar scare. The discovery of cyanide in two berries caused importers to lose about $100 million when all Chilean fresh produce was banned from sale in this country.
The increased USDA pesticide testing will be used to help determine the actual health threat to the public from these residues in food.
"I don't believe the zero-risk standard has applicability in the real world," said Yeutter. "To suggest that the risk (from farm chemicals) should be zero is nonsensical. We will, however, insist on very low or minimal risk to the public."
The debate over allowable risk, or the permissible levels of chemical residues, is at the heart in the ongoing public and Congressional debate over pesticides. At present, there is no encompassing standard for all agricultural chemicals. Instead, each compound has different acceptable residues for fresh foods, particularly produce.
Yeutter said the Bush Administration is also proposing that the federal process for canceling the use of a chemical--such as Alar--needs to be shortened from the present several-year time frame.
Another USDA proposal to cut pesticide usage comes in the form of encouraging farmers to rotate crops more frequently from one growing season to another. Currently, the federal farm program discourages such changes in the type of commodities that are grown.
"We should be more flexible on crop rotations and maybe that will allow us to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers," Yeutter said.
However, some in the audience were not cheered by Yeutter's comments.
For instance, one industry official said that the federal government has more than enough data on pesticide residues to regulate the food industry and should now begin to reassure the public that the use of these chemicals poses only a negligible risk.
"Is it a good use of resources to expand our pesticide testing? No," said Jill Snowden, technical director for the Alexandria, Va.,-based United Fresh Fruit. "We need to spend more on reassuring the public that the risk from these compounds is slight."
In fact, another federal official present at the convention said that expanded pesticide residue tests in food would produce no surprises on the exact levels of these chemicals in the food supply.
"The rate of residue violations in food would not increase--plus or minus the current margin of error--if the number of tests were expanded," said Richard Ronk, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Ronk said that about 1% of the fresh produce tested by his agency was found to be in violation of federal standards in 1988, or the last year for which complete data is available.
Out of 15,000 samples of domestic and imported fruit and vegetables tested by FDA, 96% were found free of chemical residues. The remaining 3% were considered to be in technical violation, or showed traces of a specific compound present that was not approved for use on that particular crop.
A former high-ranking FDA official also doubted the benefit of expanded testing for farm chemicals.
"When you talk about pesticide residues everyone is scared stiff," said Sanford Miller, dean of the University of Texas' Biomedical Sciences Graduate School in San Antonio. "But no one can offer the public absolute safety. We can only offer relative safety."
A public relations consultant to the Center for Produce Quality, an industry promotional group, said that agriculture has had difficulty communicating with consumers about pesticides.
"What needs to be said is that the 'health benefits of produce outweigh any possible pesticide risk,' " said Rob Gould, with the firm of Potter-Novelli in Washington. "We're for produce, not pesticides. And we need to differentiate ourselves from the (chemical manufacturers)."