WASHINGTON - Federal lawmakers may be closer than ever to eliminating the 37-year-old Food and Drug Administration ban on carcinogens in processed food and packaging, following action March 14 in the Senate Judiciary Committee. At issue is the so-called Delaney clause, which has survived attempts at repeal over the years - but never by a Republican Congress with a stated intent of favoring scientifically based risk assessment.
Repeal of the Delaney clause, or any change in the way cancer-causing agents are judged dangerous to human health, might clear the way for some plasticizer suppliers to seek FDA approval for food packaging.
An FDA official who asked not to be identified said the repeal measure has bipartisan support and that the Delaney rule's no-allowable-risk standard for carcinogens is looked upon by a wide range of legislators as unrealistic and out-of-date.
``The big problem is public perception'' that Congress might be dangerously loosening the rules governing cancer risk in food and packaging, the official said.
In some cases, the thrust of the Delaney clause has been overruled by an interpretation of federal law that allows extremely low levels of contamination in processed food, said Jerome H. Heckman, counsel for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington.
Such an exception is allowed under the ``constituents policy,'' when a suspected carcinogen component is present in otherwise FDA-approved packaging. For example, said Heckman, vinyl chloride is a carcinogen, but its one-part-per-million presence in FDA-approved PVC packaging is low enough for FDA policy to consider it an ``unwanted contaminant.''
``We have an abiding interest in the Delaney clause that goes back to the passage of the act [in 1958]. Repeal is way overdue. Repeal will put us back into the mainstream of toxicological thought,'' Heckman said.
The idea for interjecting risk assessment into Congressional arguments about public safety in part ``arose from discussions about the absolute bars in Delaney,'' said Heckman.
Chicago food and drug attorney Eric F. Greenberg, of Bullwinkel Partners, noted repeal ``has the best chance it has ever had'' in the current Congression-al climate.
Greenberg cautioned, ``I'd like to see it considered carefully. It should get attention as a separate measure, not something tacked onto the back of something else.''
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, presented the repeal measure in a meeting of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and Courts, which he chairs. The measure should be considered by the full Judiciary Committee before Congress recesses in early April, a committee spokesman said.
EPA spokesman Al Heier noted the language in the Grassley repeal measure is ``pretty blunt and to the point.''
Heier said he understood that the Grassley repeal effort may be the first time the matter has come up in the Judiciary Committee.