Food Consumption Data of Little Value to Estimate Some Exposures

RCED-91-125: Published: May 22, 1991. Publicly Released: Jun 14, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined the reliability of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) exposure estimates for safe pesticide levels and its reduced sample size, focusing on the adequacy of the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) 1987-88 food consumption survey data for EPA to estimate maximum dietary exposure to pesticide residues in food.

GAO found that: (1) budget constraints caused the reduction of the 1987-88 survey sample size by about one-third of the 30,770 individuals USDA surveyed in 1977-78; (2) survey limitations raised questions about its usefulness even for large subpopulations; (3) EPA did not participate in the 1987-88 survey's sampling design; (4) EPA ability to adequately base tolerance assessments on exposure estimates for the five smallest subpopulations may have been compromised, since the sampling error for these groups ranged from nearly 70 percent to 175 percent of the estimate; (5) EPA did not determine precision levels for exposure estimates based on 1977-78 survey data; and (6) EPA based its tolerance decisions, in part, on exposure estimates that may have lacked the precision necessary for setting tolerances.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, Public Law 104-170, enacted August 3, 1996) to require that the EPA Administrator, in establishing, modifying, leaving in effect, or revoking a tolerance or exemption for a pesticide residue, consider certain information on major identifiable subgroups of consumers. For example, for major identifiable subgroups of consumers, the new legislation specifically requires, among other things, that consideration be given to available information concerning dietary consumption patterns and aggregate exposure levels of the pesticide residue and other related substances.

    Recommendation: In order to identify and protect all subpopulations at risk from pesticide residues, the Administrator, EPA, should require the agency to calculate the precision level of exposure estimates where appropriate and use this information to determine the validity of both new and existing tolerances.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs completed a collaborative process, which included the Department of Health and Human Services, to design a 3-year food consumption survey. The survey is ongoing, with the first year having been completed.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should establish a work group to determine EPA food consumption data needs and consult with USDA to determine the best means of obtaining adequate data to meet those needs.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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