WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration introduced legislation yesterday that would overhaul food safety and pesticide laws by relaxing the standards for cancer-causing chemicals in processed foods and phasing out the use of hazardous pesticides on fresh fruits and vegetables.
The proposal, which was crafted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, would encourage farmers to use safer pest-control methods, while placing new restrictions on the use of chemical pesticides.
"We have an urgent need to protect public health by reducing the risks of pesticides," said Carol M. Browner, the EPA administrator, noting that the use of pesticides has virtually doubled in the last three decades.
"Today we have a sound, realistic proposal for ensuring a safe food supply for all Americans, especially our children."
Concerns have risen in recent years over the ingestion of pesticide-treated food by children by those who contend that children's smaller body weights may make their exposure riskier.
The plan, first announced in September, has drawn mixed reviews from environmental and industry groups. Environmentalists have praised the emphasis on safer farming practices but oppose loosening an existing ban on cancer-causing chemical residues in processed foods. The food industry has sought to replace the ban and has attacked other aspects of the bill.
The measure would require one standard for determining the amount of pesticide residue that could safely be allowed in food sold in U.S. markets, replacing the current patchwork of confusing and inconsistent standards.
While the so-called "negligible risk" standard would replace the more restrictive ban in the case of processed foods, it also would tighten regulations governing fresh fruits and vegetables. Those regulations now permit the use of some hazardous pesticides for economic reasons.
The proposal also restricts the ability of farmers and the food industry to justify use of pesticides for economic reasons and it sets procedures for phasing out chemicals that pose a significant health risk.
The bill would give chemical manufacturers seven years to prove that pesticide residues found in foods are safe. It also expands the FDA's authority to recall and embargo foods that contain pesticide levels in excess of those set by the regulations.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat who, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, has long sought greater regulation of pesticides, called it "imperative that we amend our pesticide laws in order to protect the public."
It "is especially compelling" because "our laws are wholly inadequate in protecting children from pesticides that may cause them serious harm," Mr. Waxman said.
The public-interest Natural Resources Defense Council praised elements of the plan, but said that further reforms were needed.
It is "a step in the right direction -- particularly for our children," said Erik Olson, a senior attorney with the organization. "Unfortunately, it doesn't go far enough."
A spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America said that the organization supports replacing the "antiquated" ban on all cancer-causing residues, but had "significant concerns about the real practicality" of the overall proposal. The trade group singled out the proposed new FDA embargo and recall authority as "absolutely unwarranted."
The National Food Processors Association called the administration proposal "costly and unworkable."