There is quiet on the food safety front. No imminent crises. No public alarms. No important food substances about to be removed from our dinner tables. On July 25, Congress eagerly agreed for the third time in four years to keep the Food and Drug Administration from banning saccharin during the next two years. In addition, the scientific evidence on nitrites has been re-examined and initial fears about its potential toxicity have been assuaged, allowing bacon to remain on our breakfast tables, at least for the moment.
Yet it is an uneasy quiet. The momentous task of re-examining the broader questions of food safety policy remains. Four years ago, amid the tumultuous public reaction against the proposed saccharin ban, Congress defused the situation by postponing revision of the food safety laws pending a study by the National Academy of Sciences. This study has since been concluded, and the NAS has recommended an overhaul of current food safety laws. In the view of NAS, "the law has become complicated, inflexible and inconsistent in implementation . . . (and) is inadequate to meet changing and increasing problems of food safety." Under the Carter administration, the FDA's Task Force on Food Safety advocated significant revision of the statute. The General Accounting Office recently completed a survey of former FDA commissioners that revealed a strong consensus for major reform.
But what reform? I recently introduced S1442, the Food Safety Amendments of 1981, as one way to revise and update these laws.
Unfortunately, past debate on food safety has been less than dispassionate. Too many consumer groups and food processors have been raining invective on each other.
At the center of this storm rides the Delaney Clause, a 1958 amendment requiring a ban on any substance shown to induce cancer in man or animals, regardless of any benefits associated with its use. No exception is made for substances found in such infinitesimal amounts as to present the most insignificant risk to humans.
Combatants in earlier battles of the food safety war have been fighting either for the Delaney Clause or against it. But what is needed, in fact, is some fine tuning.
The basic purpose of the Delaney Clause represents sound public policy --no substance should be added directly to food if it is a carcinogen. But how should substances like saccharin be regulated? Applying a rigid, inflexible rule to a substance that has been in use for decades and for which there are no available substitutes is short- sighted at best. For diabetics and others who cannot eat sugar, cutting off their only viable substitute sweetener is unfair.
Reasoned decision-making is even more crucial in matters affecting the supply and marketing of our basic foods. Natural nutrients found in familiar foods such as potatoes, onions and black pepper have been implicated as potential carcinogens. Essential nutrients such as selenium, Vitamin D and calcium, substances required in our human diet, act in high doses as carcinogens. The logical extension of implementing the current law would lead to FDA's banning these most basic foods.
Fortunately, the FDA has chosen the more prudent course of action and ignored the statute. Yet the law should not be merely an option or a suggestion that a federal agency can accept or reject with impunity. Laws are normative, which means they not only tell us what we can and cannot do, but set standards reflecting what a consensus of us in the community considers reasonable policy.
Right now, the Delaney Clause as a law that provides for summarily banning foods without any recourse or appeal is not reasonable.
Our revision of law should keep pace with scientific advancements. Scientists can now detect traces of potentially harmful substances at parts per trillion--a million-fold increase in analytical sensitivity compared with the methods available more than 20 years ago, when the Delaney Clause was conceived and the law last examined. Traces of such substances are being found throughout our food supply in very minute quantities. Attempting to eliminate all these food substances threatens the quantity of our national food inventory while promising only the most nominal impact in our common cause to improve the public health.
Keeping our food supply safe is of the highest priority. Yet some degree of risk is inherent. Zero risk has proved to be impossible to achieve. The FDA must focus its resources on eliminating those risks that have a potential for actually harming humans. Trivial or speculative risks should not be regulated.
Revision of the food safety law is only the first step in assuring the American people a safe and plentiful food supply. Increasing our knowledge by supporting research in the fields of nutrition and disease prevention is of equal importance. Only if sound and reliable information is available can consumers, industry and the FDA make informed and rational decisions.