Just as farmers must carefully follow label directions to legally and effectively use pesticides, manufacturers of those pesticides ought to be fully liable for damages that result from use according to directions.

That seems like basic, common sense. But the sensible view appears to be in question under a recent Environmental Protection Agenda statement on liability.

Here's part of what EPA said in a statement issued earlier this month:

"The federal pesticide law in the United States, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, pre-empts states from imposing any requirements for labeling or packaging that are in addition to or different from federal law. Accordingly, crop damage lawsuits that impose label requirements that are different from the federal label requirements are pre-empted. The federal government took this position in a brief to the United States Supreme Court. The overwhelming majority of courts that have considered this issue agree with this legal interpretation."

Some officials at farm groups have taken that as an alarming sign that EPA is saying pesticide manufacturers' liability for product safety and performance is not as great as perceived in the past. In a Capital Press news report from California last week, a National Farmer's Union official said that the EPA position appears to counter the fact that a farmer's liability is for his whole crop, not just for the cost of the pesticide. Spokesmen for Western Growers and California Farm Bureau said they're studying the issue. A Western Growers official said growers need to have a way to collect adequate compensation when the grower's high-value, perishable commodity gets damaged even though a grower follows label directions.

On one level, a key issue is a manufacturer's liability for his product when it is used as intended. Basic business principles and laws must fully support that kind of liability.

But on another level this discussion involves state requirements added to federal requirements. The issues seem to get more difficult there.

In its statement earlier this month, EPA noted that it has extensive requirements for national product labeling on pesticides. All pesticides sold in the country must bear an EPA-approved label that provides the cautionary statements and use directions that ensure safe, effective use of the products.

EPA says crop damage suits that impose different label requirements than those on the federally approved label are preempted.

Field conditions that relate to pests and crops certainly vary greatly across growing regions of the country. Dealing with those under a uniform label can be a big challenge.

Major farm groups find that liability under the EPA viewpoint may be worth a close look.

That's good. Shedding more light on who carries what liability for pesticide use can only be good for growers - and for pesticide suppliers - in the long run.

- Capital Press

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