When readers of the Los Angeles Times opened their food sections last week, they found a clip-and-save coupon far less appetizing than the usual "10 cents off ... "

"Before You Buy," the ad said, "Get Information About Possible Warnings Regarding Cancer, Birth Defects and other Reproductive Harm for particular brands of consumer products." Under "clip and keep handy" was a toll-free telephone number to call for more information about specific products.

The message and toll-free number, appearing in more than 100 California newspapers, as well as on signs posted in 62,000 supermarkets, are part of industry's compliance with Proposition 65, a controversial California law that has shaken food manufacturers. The law, a ballot initiative passed by California voters in 1986, went into effect Saturday, requiring that manufacturers give consumers "clear and reasonable" warnings regarding exposure to chemicals that pose a significant risk in causing cancer or reproductive harm.

Officially known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, the law framed by environmentalists seems to herald a new era of how the public is protected from potentially toxic substances.

Once again Californians are setting a trend -- this time one that could inspire similar food safety warnings in supermarkets across the county. The state of California is setting levels of significant risk for each pesticide, heavy metal or other chemical it identifies, leaving industry with the responsibility of alerting consumers if a product or exposure situation exceeds those levels. Environmentalists, however, have already questioned whether a toll-free number is an adequate alert.

Environmentalists hope that manufacturers would rather eliminate or reduce the level of the toxicant than alert consumers to its presence. Enlisting the power of the market place to reduce chemical risks is the key to how the proposition was intended to work, according to David Roe, principal co-author of Proposition 65 and senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. If a manufacturer does not alert consumers, they have the right to sue the company and collect 25 percent of the $2,500 per day, per exposure fine.

Critics of the proposition believe that the system will turn every Californian into an ad-hoc food inspector and encourage a "bounty hunter" method of enforcement in which the incentive to litigate is great.

The Effect of the Law

Consumer products including food, wine, charcoal lighter fluid, bug sprays and household cleaners will likely require warnings. In addition, locations such as gas stations or industrial work sites will require warning signs. The law's most dramatic impact will likely be on the dumping of toxic wastes that end up in the state's drinking water.

Essentially, the premise of the proposition is that federal laws do not adequately protect consumers from the risks of a chemical society. As a result, California's risk estimates may be stricter than federal standards in some cases; in others, estimates will be implemented where no federal standards currently exist.

In fact, some observers believe that state initiatives such as Proposition 65 are a direct backlash of Reagan-era deregulation. "The message has been sent to the American public that the Reagan administration is no longer going to be an aggressive enforcer of food safety laws," said Bill Schultz, an attorney with Public Citizen Litigation Group, a public interest law firm. "Proposition 65 is part of the public's reaction to that attitude."

Jeff Nedelman, vice president of public affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said "we're not saying that the government is doing a perfect job. Everyone can do a better job." Nedelman added that "on balance, there is not alarm within the medical community about the lack of action by the federal government {in regard to food safety}. But Proposition 65 takes the view that the government has failed and that self-appointed environmentalists know better than toxicologists and doctors. That's not true."

Nedelman believes that a ballot initiative is not a good way to reform complicated public policy, and that the new law is vague, ambiguous and may lead to a morass of unnecessary warnings that would confuse and scare consumers.

The food industry also fears that California's food safety standards will severely handicap interstate distribution of goods, and that the distribution could become even more nightmarish if other states jumped on the Proposition 65 bandwagon.

Legislatures in more than 20 states introduced bills similar to Proposition 65 last year, according to Nedelman. Although all the legislation died, currently Hawaii, Missouri and Tennessee have similar bills pending in their legislatures. (Last year, Maine prohibited the sale of irradiated food and several other state legislatures, including those of New Jersey, Alaska, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, have introduced similar bills. New York has also been active in introducing bills that supersede federal laws concerning food labeling and advertising.)

The Environmental Defense Fund's Roe said that "there is a lot of confusion that the industry is trying to create" about the products that will require warnings. Roe said that the law will only require warnings where there is a significant risk. "My guess is that most foods will be well underneath {California's risk estimates}, but it's up to manufacturers to be sure."

The food industry "is eager to hide the fact that there are holes in the federal system. We're trying to put a spotlight on those holes," Roe said.

Roe believes that federal food regulation "tends to be good" on artificial additives, but that the biggest risk in foods, and the area where there are the most "holes" is in the regulation of pesticides. Under existing toxics laws, "there is a huge incentive for delay and confusion," according to Roe. "The longer you delay and confuse, the less enforcement you get. Now the delay will hurt the industry, not the public," he said.

Al Heier, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said that the federal government has "always encouraged the option" that states be stricter when it comes to pesticide residues on foods. The EPA "can't legislate for all 50 states and be as stringent as any particular state could be," Heier said, adding that some states are "way ahead" of others when it comes to pesticide regulation. Heier concedes that individual state pesticide laws would force food manufacturers to conform to the standards of the stricter state, but that it is an issue that "society will have to decide."

The Law as Currently Implemented

So far, California has assessed risk levels for 29 chemicals and will be reviewing an additional 200 or more during the course of the year. The law that went into effect on Saturday deals with only those 29 chemicals, which primarily include heavy metals.

About 20 percent of the 200-plus chemicals identified by the state legislature affect food and agriculture, according to Nedelman. Of those first 29, vinyl chloride, benzene, lead, arsenic and chromium may be found in food, according to Nedelman. (Vinyl chloride is used in manufacturing plastic packaging; although benzene, lead, arsenic and chromium occur naturally in many foods, natural toxicants are exempt.)

The Other Exemptions

Despite all the debate, the implementation of the law when it comes to most foods is, at least temporarily, on hold. Much to the chagrin of environmental groups and to the pleasure of food industry groups, the state issued a temporary exemption for most foods, drugs and cosmetics last week. For the next eight months, federal standards will continue to regulate these products, until the state makes risk assessments for each substance.

The exemption, however, only applies to products that are deemed carcinogens, not reproductive toxicants. Lead, for example, which is considered a reproductive toxicant, would be subject to California standards. The state has set a maximum exposure level of .5 micrograms per day, which the grocer group's Nedelman said is "astronomically low." According to Nedelman, an 8-ounce glass of milk contains 12 micrograms of naturally occurring lead.

'Doesn't Pass the Laugh Test'

The toll-free number that is appearing in California newspapers and supermarkets has been created by the Ingredient Communication Council, Inc., (ICC), a new coalition of about three dozen food and consumer product companies including Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup and General Foods. While some chemicals are temporarily exempt from the labeling requirement for at least the first 29, the products may require labels in the future, and subsequent chemicals may not be exempt. Other companies may want to reassure consumers that their product does not contain a Proposition 65 chemical. The industry just wanted to get a system in place, Nedelman said.

When callers reach the number inquiring whether a specific brand name product contains a Proposition 65 chemical, they will be given one of three responses, according to Nedelman: 1) There's no chemical in this product subject to Proposition 65; 2) This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, or 3) The manufacturer does not belong to the ICC.

Scott Rombach, a spokesman for Campbell Soup, said that the company ran independent tests of its products for the presence of the first 29 Proposition 65 chemicals and found none over the exposure limits. Consumers inquiring about the company's products will be told so, Rombach said, and then given Campbell's own toll-free number if they want more information.

Roe of the Environmental Defense Fund, whose group calls the toll-free system "800-BALONEY," said that "it doesn't pass the laugh test." Roe said that he is very confident that there will be a "legal challenge" against the idea of the toll-free line.

Such a warning is not clear and reasonable as required by the law, Roe contends, because it is so logistically impractical. Supermarket shoppers deciding which products to buy would either have to go to a pay phone outside the store, according to Roe, or make 15,000 inquiries (a supermarket typically contains more than 15,000 items) before shopping.

GMA's Nedelman said that market research shows that people tend to buy the same types of products week after week and that a large percentage make a list before go to the store. The ads emphasize that shoppers should call the toll-free number before they buy, Nedelman added.

On Saturday and Sunday, the hot line received a total of 577 calls, according to Nedelman. The majority of the callers asked very general questions, primarily regarding what the proposition was all about, he said.

There are only 500 consumer products currently listed in the system, said Nedelman, who would not divulge which or how many of them contained chemicals above the safety levels established by the state.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday that reaction to supermarket signs posting the toll-free number was varied. Among the shoppers quoted, one said she did not notice the signs even though she had heard they would be posted and another wished the notices were more explicit about specific products.