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Questions and Answers on Food Safety

Questions and Answers on Food Safety

Q. Are foods treated with pesticides safe to eat?

Foods containing legal levels of pesticides are generally safe. In fact, the food supply of the United States is among the safest in the world.

Still -- like many other daily activities -- eating food with or without pesticide residues is not totally without risk.

EPA is constantly working to identify and then reduce or eliminate unnecessary risks. Based on this continuing review, the agency believes that the overall risks from pesticides in the diet are small, and the risks are generally outweighed by the benefits that pesticides bring in the form of a plentiful, nutritious and affordable food supply.

Q. Does EPA's tolerance-setting system adequately protect children?

EPA is concerned about protecting children. The agency recognizes that there are two main issues involved: l) children and infants receive proportionally higher exposure than adults; and 2) the young may be more sensitive to chemical exposure than adults. EPA's tolerance-setting system is designed to protect the average person against any short- or long-term harmful effects that might result from an entire lifetime of exposure to pesticide residues in food, including exposure during childhood.

EPA recognizes that some people -- especially infants and children -- receive significantly higher than average exposure. To guard against problems that may come from higher exposures in setting residue tolerances, EPA routinely considers both lifetime exposure for an average individual and exposure values for over 20 separate/distinct population groups. EPA analysis of pesticides in the diet takes into account that children and infants typically eat more food in relation to their body weight, and more of certain types of food, than the average adult. Using these estimates, EPA evaluates average lifetime risk, as well as the risk for people with higher exposures.

Finally, EPA is concerned that children and infants may be more sensitive to the toxic effects of pesticide residues in their diets than are adults. Scientific data are limited and inconclusive; available studies show mixed results, cases of both more and less sensitivity to chemicals in young compared to adult animals. Theoretical arguments suggest the young may be more susceptible. Although EPA believes its approach to tolerance setting adequately protects the young, the agency has contracted with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study this issue and recommend changes as needed in the agency's risk assessment or regulatory processes.

Q. Should the public have confidence in the way EPA protects the food supply?

Yes. To evaluate the risks posed by pesticides in the diet, EPA uses a process of risk assessment recommended by the National Academy of Sciences, and it has been copied by foreign governments and international bodies throughout the world.

Even though EPA's general risk-assessment methodology is widely accepted, the system is not perfect and probably never will be. Over the years, as we have recognized the need for some improvement, the agency has taken steps to strengthen its reviews. Our efforts have focused on gathering better, more complete data about pesticides; refining our ability to estimate dietary exposure; and reducing scientific uncertainties associated with risk assessment. Examples of such activities include:

  • developing the Tolerance Assessment System (TAS), a computer model which
  • helps evaluate dietary exposure of high-risk groups, including infants and
  • children;
  • commissioning a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study on the regulation
  • of carcinogenic pesticides which recommended a "negligible risk" approach to
  • setting tolerances; and
  • commissioning the NAS report on risk issues for children and infants (due in
  • 1990).

Perhaps the most significant action supported by EPA in recent years has been the 1988 legislation which will accelerate the re-registration of old pesticides and the reassessment of food tolerances based on updated data.

Q. How does EPA set and enforce tolerances?

EPA is conservative. The agency tends to overestimate risks in order to be more protective of public health.

EPA uses animal tests to identify the most severe short- and long-term risks associated with a pesticide. A safety factor, typically l00-fold, is applied to the level seen to cause no observed effects in these animal studies in order to determine a level of pesticide exposure acceptable for humans. EPA does not use the safety-factor approach, which implies a threshold of risk, in considering a tolerance for a carcinogen; instead, the agency estimates an upper bound of lifetime risk to determine whether the resulting risk is negligible or not.

EPA also estimates the exposure which is likely to occur based on the level of residues which remain on food and on food consumption data. Using these data on risks and on exposure, the agency sets a tolerance or legal limit for pesticide residues at a level that will not pose significant dietary risks to the consumer. In setting tolerances, risks to sensitive populations are considered; for example, in setting milk tolerances, the high dietary exposure of infants and young children is taken into account.

Once a tolerance is set by EPA, it is enforced by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Although limited in scope, their monitoring data show that very few food samples, domestic or foreign, contain illegal pesticide residues. In fact, the large majority of residues detected are well below tolerance levels. How much monitoring occurs is a matter of allocating resources among competing priorities for other food- safety concerns, such as microbial contamination (e.g. salmonella or botulism), which must also be addressed by FDA and USDA.

Q. How does EPA respond to claims made by NRDC that pesticides in the food supply pose intolerable risks?

EPA welcomes a constructive public debate on the issues NRDC has raised.

The agency can not comment on the details of the NRDC study until we have had a chance to examine it carefully. Specifically, we cannot agree or disagree with a particular risk estimate until we review the methodology, data and assumptions used to generate the findings. Widely divergent estimates of risk can come from different analyses. However, it is our general view that pesticide residues in foods are not posing significant risks to the American public; in any particular case where there is reason to believe that a pesticide is posing a serious risk, the agency can and does take action. In protecting children or any other sensitive group, EPA welcomes new proposals provided they are supported by a reasonable consensus among the scientific community.