WASHINGTON -- In the next few weeks, Congress will consider legislation to alter drastically the rules on food safety.
The changes, scattered throughout several bills, have been proposed by the Republicans to limit the federal government's authority to regulate not only food safety but also health and the environment.
Taken together, the bills would reduce the burden on businesses to prove that food is safe and would increase the burden on government agencies to prove that proposed rules would reduce risks to the public and would be worth the cost. The bills would also expand the food industry's chances to appeal the rules in court.
The centerpiece of the effort is a bill on regulatory reform sponsored by Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the majority leader, which would affect many food rules.
"It is clear that the American people are fed up with a regulatory state that is out of control," Mr. Dole said. "The bill simply asks that agencies use common sense to avoid unnecessary costs when pursuing important goals such as health and safety." The changes, he said, would not foreclose tougher safety standards or override existing mandates.
But critics disagree and contend that the result would be a food supply that is much less safe.
"These proposals are an assault on 40 years of consumer protection," said Dr. David Kessler, head of the Food and Drug Administration. In a recent interview, he spoke out against the proposals for the first time, saying he had decided to do so because "there is an enormous amount at stake."
"It's one thing to eliminate unnecessary burdens on business," Dr. Kessler said. "It's another thing to compromise long-standing health and safety standards."
The bills, if approved, would have the following consequences:
* Rules to modernize the meat inspection system, including microbial testing, scheduled to go into effect next year, would either be dropped or postponed. The rules were proposed by the Agriculture Department in an effort to prevent an estimated 5 million illnesses and 4,000 deaths each year from meat and poultry tainted with harmful bacteria.
* A major regulation intended to improve the testing of seafood by the end of the year would either be stopped or postponed several years.
* The Delaney clause, which forbids adding even the slightest trace of any known carcinogen to food, would be repealed. The Clinton administration opposes the move as part of regulatory reform.
* Pesticides that are considered probable human carcinogens could continue to be used. The Environmental Protection Agency had been in the process of removing them from the market.
* The Food and Drug Administration's plan to regulate the packaging of iron supplements -- the leading cause of poisoning of children -- would be dropped or delayed several years. The rule was scheduled to go into effect later this year.
Change of focus
Currently, most decisions on food regulations are based on their effect on health. But under the proposed legislation, benefits to farmers and food processors would play a greater role in determining whether the Food and Drug Administration could issue new safety requirements for food companies or whether the Environmental Protection Agency would permit the use of a particular pesticide.
The Republican majorities in both the House and Senate strongly support changes along these lines, and some Democrats are prepared to vote for them as well. Some form of legislation reducing regulations is likely to pass, and at the very least, the Delaney clause will be weakened.
The provision -- considered an important regulatory device by many environmentalists -- is named for James Delaney, a former congressman from Brooklyn who was the author of the clause, an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act passed in 1958.
On the other hand, President Clinton has said he will veto some more sweeping measures, including the Dole bill, unless they are substantially changed.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, said: "The Republicans cloak their actions in terms of anti-government regulation, but it's more than that. They are siding with and helping special interests at the expense of public health when they attack food safety."
In addition to the regulatory reform bills -- already passed by the House and due for a vote in the Senate after the Fourth of July recess -- the House is considering a bill on the regulation of pesticides and an amendment to an agriculture appropriations bill concerning meat and poultry inspection.
And a House subcommittee is debating a proposal to turn the approval of food additives over to private testing laboratories.
The food industry, which has made significant campaign contributions to Republican candidates, is supported by the Republican leadership in the belief that the current system is broken, that food safety regulations are too burdensome and too expensive for the amount of protection they provide.
They want more detailed analyses of the risks and the benefits before a regulation can be approved.
But Dr. Kessler said the proposed modifications would only make the agency's work more difficult. "Most people think of regulatory reform as streamlining or eliminating bureaucracy, but it would do exactly the opposite," he said.
The requirements for elaborate studies to show the risk and benefits of a regulation will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Given budget restraints, this will force agencies to scale back or curtail regulations," said David Vladeck, director of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen Litigation Group.
One consequence of the additional studies, Mr. Vladeck said, would likely be an end to the Food and Drug Administration's efforts to regulate iron tablets, which were responsible for 100,000 cases of poisoning among children in a five-year period, from 1988 to 1993.
The agency wants to place warnings on all packages of the pills and require packaging of higher potency pills in child-resistant containers.
Although iron pills are already known to be toxic to children, the proposed legislation would require the Food and Drug Administration to go through a costly process to show risks and benefits.