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GAO Recommends Suspending Pesticide Testing Program

December 20, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A new pesticide-measuring program for fruits and vegetables is unreliable and should be suspended after current testing is completed, congressional investigators say.

The Agriculture Department program is ″behind schedule, proceeding with a reduced scope, and not producing statistically reliable data - a key objective,″ the General Accounting Office said in a draft report. The Associated Press obtained the findings Thursday.

The $24 million program tests the residues of specific pesticides left on fresh fruits and vegetables. The results go to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is supposed to use the data in setting safe human limits for use of individual pesticides on food.

A third agency, the Food and Drug Administration, is responsible for enforcing the limits with inspections.

USDA official Rusty Jesser called the findings ″extremely premature″ and contended the report contained ″numerous inaccuracies and incomplete data″ on the program, which began in April.

Jesser, executive assistant to the administrator of the Agriculture Marketing Service, strongly objected to the proposed suspension.

″We are evaluating this program weekly and daily,″ he said. ″You need to be testing throughout the year. For example, many tomatoes during the winter months come from Mexico. If we don’t do sampling in the winter months you will have an unclear picture of the consumption of tomatoes during the entire year.″

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded, ″The Pesticide Data Program is not providing expected improvements in pesticide residue data needed to make key regulatory decisions to ensure food safety.″

The investigators said the EPA cannot make immediate use of the test results in its ongoing program to establish safe levels for specific pesticides on food.

Citing the head of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs as its source, the GAO said ″the first-year data from USDA do not cover the chemicals expected to be the subject of pesticide re-registration decisions in the near future.″

The investigators recommended that ″the secretary of agriculture suspend residue data collection activities beyond the current efforts.″

During the suspension, they said, USDA should evaluate the program with officials of the EPA and the FDA and decide with them on how the program can provide reliable information.

The report was ordered by Rep. Robert E. Wise Jr., D-W.Va., chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee on government information, justice and agriculture. He said he would hold hearings on the program next year.

The report said the Agriculture Department has not determined whether its computer system can adequately process or disseminate the testing information, or whether new systems will be necessary.

Pesticide residue information is collected from seven fresh fruits and vegetables in a program designed to sample 30 types, the GAO said.

Sixteen pesticide residues were targeted for testing, but only seven were included by the end of September.

The USDA’s Jesser said 24 pesticides now are being tested and the number of food items will increase to 11 in January.

He said the USDA ″data is reliable″ and that the list of chemicals was selected jointly by the Agriculture Department and EPA.

Jesser said the department’s computer operation would be able to disseminate needed information, and he blamed congressional budget cuts for any reduction in the program.

There are more than 60 pesticides that are known or suspected carcinogens used in foods, said Lawrie Mott, a senior scientist at the private Natural Resources Defense Council who specializes in pesticides and children’s health.

Ms. Mott said there is a special danger to children because they consume some pesticide-laden foods - such as apple juice - in disproportionate amounts compared with adults.

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