WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration proposed substantial changes yesterday in the nation's pesticide and food safety laws to reduce the risks that toxic pesticides pose to consumers, especially infants and other children.
"Today's proposal is a giant step forward, an opportunity to break the logjam of competing and vested interests to ensure a rigorous standard for food safety," Carol M. Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said before a joint House and Senate committee hearing.
Ms. Browner described the proposals as "the first significant, realistic attempt" to improve the nation's food safety and pesticide laws in 20 years.
But environmentalists reacted with vehement opposition to one of the proposals -- a plan to scrap a requirement that there be no cancer-causing pesticides in processed foods, such as tomato sauce.
The 35-year-old provision, known as the Delaney clause, has not been rigorously enforced in recent years, and environmentalists won a court decision last year requiring the EPA to enforce the law more strictly.
The Clinton proposal would replace it with a new standard that says cancer-causing pesticide residue can pose no more than a "negligible risk," which means no greater than one additional cancer case per 1 million people.
"The bottom line is that most people would not want their food to include cancer-causing chemicals," said Ed Hopkins of Citizen Action, a consumer group.
"This administration is not doing that. They are trying to figure out how many pesticides can be on your dinner plate while keeping cancer rates down to a certain level."
Trade associations, such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America, welcomed the replacement of the Delaney clause but said that the Clinton administration's proposal "is mortally wounded" by other elements, such as sweeping enforcement powers for the Food and Drug Administration.
"Under current law, it is easier to send a food company official to jail than it is to convict a cocaine dealer of drug trafficking," said GMA President C. Manley Molpus.
Nationwide, about 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year. Of the 600 pesticides now used, two-thirds have never been subjected to any health standards, Ms. Browner said.
Proposed reforms for dealing with pesticides would:
* Require the EPA to issue specific findings that a pesticide tolerance is safe for foods eaten by children.
* Extend the FDA's health-based standard of a "reasonable certainty of no harm" to consumers for food safety for all pesticide-treated foods, including raw fruit and vegetables.
* Require that high-risk pesticides meet the safety standard within three years and that all other pesticides meet the standard within seven years.
* Develop goals to reduce pesticide use by the end of the decade.