WASHINGTON - Citing a potential risk to the health of children, opponents fired the opening salvos in this year's legislative effort to repeal the cornerstone of food safety law in America, the Delaney Clause. Their principal target was the employment of risk-assessment procedures in the proposed Food Quality Protection Act of 1995, H.R. 1627, introduced last month by Reps. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Thomas Bliley, R-Va.
Bliley chairs the Commerce Committee, whose subcommittee on Health and the Environment first heard the Delaney Clause arguments June 7.
Since 1958, the controversial clause has prohibited any known cancer-causing agent to come into contact with processed food. Reform attempts in the last two Congresses failed, in part because of opposition to a risk-assessment procedure.
Other elements of H.R. 1627 already have been heard before the House Agriculture Committee, but contentions that the Delaney Clause affects food carried in interstate commerce brought the issue before the Commerce Committee. A House vote on the bill could come by mid-July.
Subcommittee chairman Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla., asked panelists' assurances that the new measure would ``provide sufficient safeguards for children.''
Juanita Duggan, a National Food Processors Association executive vice president, told Bilirakis that ``risk assessments should produce acceptable tolerances [of carcinogenic exposure] for children and special populations. The bill gives the [Environmental Protection Agency] flexibility to use all data to determine if those tolerances are acceptable.''
Advocates of risk assessment contend a total ban on many carcinogens would have a far worse effect than allowing the ``negligible risk'' involved in their use.
But Lynn R. Goldman, assistant EPA administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances, argued that allow-ing trace amounts of pesticides to come in contact with commercially processed food does not provide an adequate measure of safety for the entire population.
The Clinton administration favors a set ``health-based'' standard of acceptable cancer-agent residues in food, to ``take into account potential effects on ... infants and children - the most vulnerable members of our society,'' Goldman said.
Goldman was joined by other opponents, including Jay Feldman, executive director of the Washington-based National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, in denouncing the proposed measure's replacement of the Delaney Clause.
Feldman opposed swapping the clause with legal requirements to use scientific risk assessment.
Feldman contended the argument of whether to allow trace elements of carcinogens to come in contact with food ``boils down to differences in toxicological philosophy.
``We do not know the mechanism of cancer,'' he said. ``We don't know how much of what causes it'' regardless of how sophisticated current technology is in assessing risks from small chemical concentrations. De-laney errs on the side of safety.''
Eric Olson, counsel for the National Resources Defense Council, noted that H.R. 1627 ``appears to require only a residue-by-residue assessment'' of toxins that would come in contact with processed food. The National Academy of Sciences, whose 1993 report, ``Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children,'' was cited by Olson and others, favors a review of all toxins appearing in a given food item at the same time.
Proponent Stephen Ziller, a Grocery Manufacturers of America vice president from Washington, also expressed concern that states might set up a patchwork of Delaney-like regulations in the absence of a federal law establishing acceptable tolerances of food and pesticide contact.
``Differing state standards, whether they are imposed directly through tolerances or indirectly through labeling requirements, will significantly burden interstate commerce,'' he said.