Data used to help gauge food safety

Chicago Tribune
By Stephen J. Hedges | Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has abruptly halted a government program that tests the levels of pesticides in fruits, vegetables and field crops, arguing that the $8 million-a-year program is too expensive – a decision critics say could make it harder to protect consumers from toxins in their food.

Data from the 18-year-old Agricultural Chemical Usage Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture were collected until this year, and the Environmental Protection Agency used the data to set safe levels of pesticides in food.

The information was also widely used by university and food industry researchers, including a University of Illinois program to help farmers reduce the amount of pesticides they use.

The program was launched in 1990 to answer congressional concerns over the use of the chemical daminozide, or Alar, on apples. But now USDA contends the program is too expensive.

“We looked at the budget and said, ‘We can’t do everything we have been doing, and what are we going to get rid of?’ ” said Mark Miller of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which administered the program.

The decision came as a shock to researchers at the EPA and elsewhere who have come to rely on the data, which measure how much pesticide farmers apply to certain crops each year.

“Elimination of this program will severely hamper the efforts of the USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), land grant scientists, and state officials to perform pesticide risk assessments and make informed policy decisions on pesticide use,” the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer.

Since 1990, the program has included tests on about 120 different kinds of fruits, vegetables and field crops, such as almonds, olives, spinach, wheat, corn and apples.

The Agriculture Department had been scaling back the program over the last several years, alternating which fruits and vegetables are tested. In 2007, Miller said, USDA tested only cotton and apples.

Some critics see the move as part of a broad but quiet deregulation effort the Bush administration has undertaken in its final months in office.

Among those most affected is the EPA. Bill Jordan, a senior adviser in the agency’s pesticides office, said it’s now buying expensive privately collected data and relying on older information.

EPA had used data from the canceled program, along with other input, to help set acceptable levels of pesticides in food.

Susan Ratcliffe, who runs the Integrated Pest Management Center at the University of Illinois, said her research also relied on the canceled USDA data. Her program works with farmers to limit pesticide use to problem areas in their fields, rather than using chemicals as a “prophylactic” to control pests everywhere.

Institutions that used the USDA data must now buy similar information from a private company, Dmrkynetec. A company representative did not return a phone call for comment. Those who have purchased the data packages said they cost about $500,000 to $700,000 a year.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, in its letter to Schafer, said the private data sets are “extremely expensive and unreliable, and thus are no substitute.”

The danger posed by pesticides has been the focus of a long-running debate in the food world. Over time, some pesticides have been banned as suspected carcinogens. Others, EPA contends, are safe if applied at recommended levels.

The termination of the USDA tests is certain to spur more disagreement over how much consumers should worry about the chemicals used to produce their food.

Some have lobbied to eliminate the use of bug- and weed-controlling chemicals. Others argue that the human body can tolerate small amounts of pesticides, and that their presence should not discourage the consumption of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Concern over pesticides helped launch the organic food market, which has evolved from a grass-roots farming movement 20 years ago to a multibillion-dollar international food industry today.

Most pesticides are banned in the production of organic food under USDA regulations. But that doesn’t mean all organic food is pesticide-free. Charles Benbrook, a scientist with The Organic Center in Boulder, Colo., found in a recent study that about 20 percent of organic foods tested by USDA contained low levels of pesticides.

That’s because pesticide use has been so prevalent in the past that it’s nearly impossible to eliminate all traces of it. USDA’s National Organic Program has set the acceptable level of pesticides in organic food at 5 percent of its allowable limits in conventional foods.

“You’re talking about extremely low levels of pesticides,” said Barbara Robinson, USDA’s deputy administrator for the National Organic Program. “They could appear for any number of reasons, but not for deliberate reasons. They’re things that can exist in the ground for years.”

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