NEW LIGHT

Perhaps the application of good sense to any endeavor will never reach the level of common practice, but the influence of clear thinking seems to be making an unexpected appearance in Washington's halls of government. Certainly such is the case when looking from the narrow perspective of a few issues affecting the supermarket industry, several of which are getting a favorable hearing after languishing

Perhaps the application of good sense to any endeavor will never reach the level of common practice, but the influence of clear thinking seems to be making an unexpected appearance in Washington's halls of government. Certainly such is the case when looking from the narrow perspective of a few issues affecting the supermarket industry, several of which are getting a favorable hearing after languishing -- and begging for attention -- for years. Here's a quick roundup of some of the surprising activity now afoot:

The most important development surrounds the much-berated Delaney Clause, a 38-year-old provision in law that forbids any pesticide trace in processed foods.

The Delaney provision looks like a supportable safeguard at first glance, but under strong light its Achilles heel becomes all too evident: Chemical-detection technology has advanced to the point that it's now close to impossible to find any raw food that doesn't emit a faint -- albeit harmless -- whisper of pesticide-related chemicals. The useful work regulators should pursue is to make sure no superfluous element that could compromise public health enters the food chain. The U.S. Congress is swiftly coming to that position by moving forward the Food Quality Protection bill that would supplant the Delaney Clause with the standard of "reasonable certainty of no harm." The bill has picked up the support of the Clinton administration and appears almost certain to become law shortly.

Another welcome gust of good thinking comes from a change of U.S. Department of Agriculture measures concerning meat and poultry inspection. Regulations dating to 1907 require inspectors to apply a "look and smell" test to meat and poultry under processing. New criteria will require processors to apply the scientific standard known as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, a move that will surely enhance public safety.

The downside of the change is that inspection will become more costly to processors and, by extension, retail price points may rise. But, in the end, little is more expensive to retailers or processors than an outbreak of E. coli or salmonella with its potential to sow widespread sickness or death, and to spread punishing publicity. Indeed, worldwide publicity was generated late last week in connection with a major outbreak of food-borne illness and death in Japan.

Finally, many in the industry welcome the upcoming modification of the regulation that exposes supermarket operators to stiff fines if they permit workers under the age of 18 to load in-store cardboard-bailing equipment.

Here again, technology has rendered obsolete a well-intentioned regulation, dating from 1954, aimed at keeping immature hands off dangerous machinery. But recently manufactured bailers have safety devices sufficient to preclude the possibility of accidental startups, therewith eliminating danger to loaders. There will continue to be a mandate that older workers operate and unload bailing apparatus.

Let's hope these glimmers of common sense will turn into a continuous beacon.