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Public Voice for Food and Health Policy

Carol M. Browner
Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Public Voice for Food and Health Policy
Washington, D.C.

Prepared for Delivery
March 12, 1997

Thank you, Steve Brobeck, for that introduction.  I salute you for your longstanding and steadfast leadership of the consumer movement in this country.  It is precisely because of leadership from people like you that we able to point to real progress in public health protections in this country.

And to everyone else associated with Public Voice, thank you for having me back at what has become the food policy conference for America. Without a doubt, you have evolved into one of the nation’s premier consumer organizations.  Not bad for just two short decades.

Let me say that I am grateful -- not only as a food safety regulator who needs your help, but also as a consumer and a mother -- for the fabulous work that Public Voice has been doing, day-in and day-out, to advance the cause of safer, more healthy and more affordable food.

Three years ago, when I last appeared at the National Food Policy Conference, I had been serving in my position for a little more than a year.  I spoke about the urgent need to change the nation’s policy on food safety and pesticide use.  I pointed to the doubling of pesticide use over the previous 30 years.  I talked about the fact that pesticide residues were showing up in drinking water and breast milk.  And I noted that our laws did not give us the tools we need to protect our health and our environment.

Reforming the nation’s pesticide laws -- and bringing them into the 1990s -- has been a top priority of President Clinton’s administration since day one.  We worked tirelessly to find some way to end the gridlock -- meeting with farmers, with parents, with consumer groups, with environmental activists, with chemical manufacturers, with state officials, and with many of you -- all in an effort to find common ground from which we could move the country forward toward a better public health standard for pesticides.

Today, thanks in no small part to your efforts and to the partnership we created, we are ringing in a new era in food safety regulation.

The Food Quality Protection Act, championed by President Clinton and signed into law last August, will bring major improvements to pesticide regulation -- and with it vast new opportunities to protect the public health, the environment and -- most importantly -- our children.

It replaces the current, fragmented system for regulating pesticides with a single, more protective, comprehensive, health-based, children-first standard for all pesticides, all health risks, all foods.  In particular, it will eliminate past inconsistencies that treated pesticide residues in some processed foods differently from other raw and processed foods.

The new law also requires explicit testing to ensure that pesticide residues on food are safe for children.  And it provides for an additional ten-fold margin of safety if there is uncertainty in the data for assessing risks to children.

It will expedite the approval of safer, reduced-risk pesticides -- while encouraging the development of safer, effective crop protection methods.  At long last, our laws are more in tune with Rachel Carson's simple and appropriate advice:  that because pesticides are risky -- to consumers, to workers, and to our environment -- less pesticide use is better.

Now, I know you are concerned about EPA’s role in the implementation of the Food Quality Protection Act.  In other words -- now that we have a good law, what are we going to do with it?

As many of you know, there is no explicit transition period.  The new law has given EPA a lot of new directions, assignments and deadlines.  But let me assure each and every one of you that our agency is committed to implementing the Food Quality Protection Act quickly, effectively and openly

Our implementation policies will be based on the best current science.  They will put the public health first.  They will place high priority the development of safer pesticides and the encouragement of pest management strategies that minimize pesticide use.  Not only are we committed to a full public accounting of this process, but we are counting on the various stakeholders to be an integral part of it.
For example, in the interest of expanding consumers’ right to know about pesticide health risks, the new law directs EPA to produce a brochure providing important information on pesticide residues in food -- and to distribute it to the public through large retail grocers.

We are determined that this brochure will be a useful and effective product of the new law.  And the way to meet that challenge is to ensure that both stakeholders and ordinary consumers are fully involved in its development.  We will seek advice from a wide variety of interested parties -- from consumer groups, nutritionists, food producers, retailers and public health organizations, to name a few.  We’re going to use focus groups to determine what information is most useful to consumers and how best to present it to them.

We plan to have this brochure printed and in the stores by August 1998, as required by law.  But we have a tremendous amount of work to do between now and then -- and I will be grateful for your generous contributions of ideas and support.

I know we can count on you.

This new law came into being largely because of the partnership we were able to build with you -- and with other consumer groups, farmers, chemical manufacturers, scientists, industry groups and many others.  It has been a great partnership.  And the fact that the Food Quality Protection Act received unanimous approval by Congress speaks volumes about the desire by all parties to build and sustain the highest level of consumer confidence in the safety of our food supply.

So it really is a new era in food quality protection.  Thanks to the new law, EPA will be able to take stronger action on pesticides.  We will be moving from the old chemical-by-chemical approach to regulation, and into a more universal approach that looks at an individual’s total exposure to toxic substances.

And, as you might imagine, I am very excited about the new protections for infants and children.

To be sure, EPA’s progress in protecting our children from environmental health threats will not be limited to the food quality issue.  Despite all the progress we have made in environmental protection over the past 25 years, there is still great cause for concern about what is happening to America’s children. Their health is one of this administration’s highest priorities, and we are determined to see that it is the focal point of nearly everything EPA does.

Because their bodies and minds are still developing, children are more susceptible than adults to environmental threats.  Proportionate to body weight, they eat more of certain types of food, drink more fluids, and breathe more air than adults do.  The young ones crawl on the floor or the ground -- the older ones spend a lot of time outdoors -- and, thus, children are often more exposed to potentially harmful pollutants in the soil, around the house or in the air.
Last September, EPA released a major report detailing the environmental health threats faced by children.  We also set forth a new national agenda to protect children from those risks more comprehensively than ever before.

The result of all this is that EPA is now taking steps to ensure that an awareness of children’s unique sensitivity to environmental hazards -- from toxic chemicals to dirty air -- will guide every action we take to protect public health and our environment.  From now on, when we set public health and environmental standards, EPA will take into account the unique vulnerabilities of children, to ensure that all standards protect children first.  In addition, we are preparing to review our most significant existing standards to ensure that they protect the most sensitive populations.

Last month, I announced the creation of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health and Protection.  This new office will be in charge of carrying out that review, as well as furthering our understanding of children’s environmental health and ensuring that an awareness of their unique sensitivity to environmental threats will guide every action EPA takes to protect public health and our environment.

In our view, when we protect children and other senstive populations from environmental health threats, we protect everyone.

Before closing, let me say just a few words about biotechnology -- a subject which I know is of great interest to many of you.

Over the past few years, we have seen unprecedented innovation and advancements in this area -- advancements that hold tremendous promise for improving the safety, the quantity and the quality of the world’s food supply.

EPA, as one of three federal agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of biotechnology products, has sought to nurture this trend -- on one hand, taking steps to foster continued research and development of disease-resistant and pest-resistant plants -- while, on the other hand, ensuring there is enough regulatory oversight to maintain the safety of these products and, with it, the confidence of the consuming public.

Many in industry share our view that this is a win-win situation.  We believe, generally, that biotechnology is likely to offer safer and more cost-effective pest and disease control than many current alternatives. Our efforts will ensure that the public gets the protection it needs, while the industry gets the “stamp of approval” that can be so critical to successful marketing of any new product.

This partnership has worked, and worked well.  But I want to stress that EPA’s first priority is to protect human health and the environment.  Nothing in that has changed or will change.
The enactment of the Food Quality Protection Act -- and of the Safe Drinking Water Act, for that matter -- show the progress that can be made when this administration and the Congress work together to protect public health and the environment.

We hope that Congressional leaders will be true to their word when they say they want to work in a bipartisan manner on environmental issues.

We look forward to working with them to continue the progress of the past four years.

But let me be clear about this -- any attempt to weaken our accomplishments -- or to weaken the environmental progress of the past quarter-century -- will be unacceptable to this administration and to the American people, who have made clear that they want strong public health and environmental protections.

We are committed to delivering President Clinton’s fundamental promise to the American people for the 21st Century -- the promise of fresh air to breathe, clean water to drink, safe food to eat and land that is safe to live on.

Working together, we can protect our health, our communities and our economy -- and pass along a safe, healthy world to our children.

Thank you.