PUBLIC Voice for Food and Health Policy itemized several areas of concern in its report, "A Market Basket of Food Hazards: Critical Gaps in Government Protection." A brief synopsis of the 106-page report, with response from federal agencies, follows:
* CONTAMINANTS IN SEAFOOD: Inspection is voluntary, and according to the Department of Commerce, less than one-third of the fish consumed in this country is federally inspected for chemical residues, parasites and bacterial contamination. Intermittent Food and Drug Administration inspection for sanitation in fish processing plants does not include any tests for parasites or chemical residues in the fish.
* PESTICIDE RESIDUES ON PRODUCE: According to the FDA, it tests for less than half of the commonly used pesticides because "even with unlimited resources, it would be very difficult, if not impossible" to analyze all the combinations of residues that might be present on produce. Because of expense, it samples a small fraction of all the produce sold.
In addition, many pesticides have not been studied, so that the Environmental Protection Agency sets tolerance levels and enforcement procedures with little scientific data to support the decisions, according to the report of a congressional subcommittee. Public Voice, with subcommittee evidence, has accused the Reagan administration of adopting less stringent limits of cancer-causing residues on produce, adding that combined residues from several pesticides pose a greater threat. FDA, however, maintains that surveys show no serious problems with extant residue levels.
* PESTICIDES, DRUGS AND ENVIRONMENTAL CONTAMINANTS IN MEAT AND POULTRY: According to a General Accounting Office survey, there are 140 pesticides and contaminants "likely to leave residues" in meat and poultry, but the Agriculture Department tests for only 60. USDA officials say that is 15 more than were tested during the Carter administration, and that technology, time and expense limit further testing.
While the budget for sampling and enforcement has been increased, much of that money goes to education programs designed to teach meat and poultry producers how to use chemicals properly. These education programs have been developed with industry guidance. Officials at the USDA say that consumer groups have been invited to participate in program development but have not responded, an assertion that Public Voice denies.
In addition, the USDA has a program of industry self-regulation, designed to "assure that poultry presented for slaughter" complies "with applicable residue tolerance." Carol Foreman, who was involved with this program as former assistant secretary of agriculture under Carter, says, "What's new is the arrangement between industry and the USDA" that now any violations won't be publicized. "They're not telling the public. That's the most destructive thing in the world for public confidence."
* ANTIBIOTICS AND DRUGS IN FOOD ADDITIVES: Up to one half of the antibiotics used in this country are added to feed to prevent disease in animals. Public Voice says such widespread use of penicillin, tetracycline and other drugs may build up bacterial resistance in consumers, reducing the drugs' effectiveness in treating human disease. In 1977 the FDA proposed restricting these drugs, but this administration has sought to allow feed producers to release new drug-fortified products, lifting a previously honored embargo.
* SALMONELLA: According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, most cases of salmonella poisoning are caused by beef, turkey, homemade ice cream, pork and chicken. Public Voice says the poisoning is the result of improper handling by producers. No federal action has been taken to reduce the amount of this bacteria on raw meat, according to USDA, because the bacteria are ubiquitous, economically impossible to eradicate and any danger is eliminated with proper handling by consumers. Public Voice maintains that other countries have much stricter salmonella controls and accuses the Reagan administration of emphasizing meat-handling education rather than setting legal limits on salmonella contamination.
* AFLATOXIN: This natural cancer-causing mold is pervasive in both animal and human food, contaminating peanuts and other nuts, cottonseed, feed corn and some cornmeal products. The FDA is authorized to set tolerance levels of aflatoxin permissible in these products. Instead, the FDA has set "action levels" of contamination at which the agency can take legal action to remove the contaminated product from the market. Consumers do not participate in establishing the limits, nor are the limits formally set. Action levels can be changed at the discretion of department officials, while tolerance levels cannot. The Carter administration proposed reducing the amount of aflatoxin permissible in peanuts, but no action has been taken. The current administration proposes to raise the levels of aflatoxin allowed in some products and has allowed exemptions on existing "action level" tolerances.
* FOOD AND DRUG ADDITIVES: The FDA allows foods to contain byproducts created during the manufacture of safe additives, even when that byproduct is not proven safe. FDA says that an "unavoidable impurity" should not prevent the use of an additive that has not been shown to cause cancer. For instance, FDA allows food color green No. 6, which apparently is safe, even though P-toluidine, an impurity that is a byproduct of its manufacture, seems to cause cancer. Public Voice objects to this policy, asserting that it directly contradicts federal laws regulating carcinogens in food.
Furthermore, some colors, such as red dye No. 36, have never been formally approved by the FDA but are still in use. In the early '60s, the FDA gave additive manufacturers three years to market their products while attempting to prove them safe, and therefore eligible for permanent FDA approval, or to remove them from the food supply. Yet many food additives remain on this "provisional list" without any such proof. After 20 years, orange dye No. 17 was banned as harmful. Further, once these additives get FDA approval, critics claim, it's inordinately difficult to reverse the approval decision, even though they are subsequently proven harmful.
* LEAD: When consumed, lead can cause learning impairment and brain damage in children and nervous disorders in adults. The lead used to solder cans is a source of 14 percent of consumer exposure to lead, and is responsible for two-thirds of the dietary lead consumed. Because evaporated milk is often used to feed infants, the FDA proposed in 1974 that lead solder no longer be used for the milk cans, but no action has been taken. One reason, according to the FDA, is that lead levels in cans have been dropping significantly in the past few years and now legislation is not necessary. But advocates of legislation say that lower lead levels are the result of "threatened regulation," and the Reagan administration could be more aggressive in this regard. The FDA is considering a petition requesting that fruit juice manufacturers be required to label their products as especially susceptible to lead contamination after opening because of the high amount of acid in the juice, but no decision has been made.
A copy of the 106-page report is available for $15 from Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, Suite 519, 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036.