In its first major initiative as a consumer lobby, Public Voice for Food and Health Policy has itemized what it says are gaps in the government's protection of a safe food supply.
"It's important that there be progressive leadership in promoting awareness in food-safety problems before the Congress moves to change the laws," said executive director Ellen Haas.
She said Public Voice is a "catalyst for bettering the marketplace."
The report, released April 5, describes "the series of gaps in the current network of food protection." Its purpose, she said, "is not to alarm consumers about the food they eat, but rather to alert the public that the food is not as safe as it can be, and that the Reagan administration is moving away from . . . increasing the safety of the food supply."
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, said in a letter accompanying the report that it "adds to my fear that the Reagan budget cuts are seriously jeopardizing the health and safety of the American people."
Unlike the problems addressed in the Delaney Clause legislation that forbids cancer-causing additives in food, the hazards addressed in this report "have been very little known to the average consumer," Haas said at the news conference to introduce the report.
FDA spokesman Jim Green said: "In general our regulations are intact, the enforcement of those regulations is intact. Our budget has not suffered. We're confident that we have the money and the manpower to protect the food supply."
"In many or most respects, the food supply in this country is safe," said Tom Smith, author of the report. The "gaps" that exist "make the food supply not as safe as it could be, and in some cases, those gaps have been broadened by the current administration."
The report says that the government has weakened safety standards and risk assessment procedures of pesticides on produce, it takes fewer samples of meat to check for chemical residues, and it has loosened restrictions on animal feed containing antibiotics and on cancer-causing molds in feed grains. The report states that regulatory bureaus under the Reagan administration have " reduced the safety of the food supply."
People aren't dropping dead from the results of the liberalized policy, said Haas, adding that the potential damage to consumers is cumulative. "It is not a question of 'tomorrow we will have body count.' What we are talking about are problems in 20 years or 10 years. But we know that the risk is there and we know that the risk is great."
More immediately apparent are health problems associated with contaminated fish and with food poisoning organisms in poultry, said Smith.
It's important "for the public to know that there are hazards that exist that could be controlled better by the government," Haas said. She also said it was the responsibility of the consumer to "balance" the influence of private interests on the government by getting involved in the regulatory process.
The current Department of Agriculture makes policy decisions with the help of industry but not with corresponding participation from consumer, health or scientific organizations, Haas said. Decisions are made in secret, "between the Department of Agriculture . . . and the affected industry, without any kind of public knowledge or consumer participation," Haas said.
She said Public Voice is urging Congress to examine these issues "and take appropriate action" to reduce health risks to consumers.
Public Voice was established in November 1982. The board of directors includes Bob Bergland, former secretary of agriculture; Steve Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America; and Ann Brown, chairman of consumer affairs for Americans for Democratic Action. The board of advisers includes former presidential adviser (to Johnson and Carter) Esther Peterson, former senator George McGovern and Robert Rodale of Rodale Press.