In a move long sought by the agriculture and chemical industries, the Clinton administration will ask Congress to undo a blanket ban on cancer-causing pesticides in processed foods, an administration official confirmed Thursday.

Instead the administration seeks a standard that would allow small amounts of carcinogens if the government determines they do not pose a significant health risk, said Environmental Protection Agency special assistant Ann Hardison.Confirming the description given by interest groups who had been briefed on the administration's new food safety package, she said the administration proposes to use a "negligible risk" standard for cancer-causing pesticides, the same as EPA uses for non-carcinogenic health risks.

EPA interprets that to mean a risk of one added cancer case for every million people but would not make the numbers part of the law because "10 years from now science may tell us something different than one in a million is appropriate," Hardison said in a telephone interview.

"Our goal is to move to a more health-based standard to setting residue levels on pesticides," she said. As to the impact on the public, she said, "They're getting better protection" under the policy changes envisioned.

She called the carcinogen standard "a very small part" of a broader food safety initiative being prepared by the EPA, Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration that would:

- Set a uniform health-based standard for allowable pesticides on food, instead of using different risk assessments for health effects other than cancer.

- Reform the pesticide registration process to move biological and other safer pesticides to the market more quickly.

- Set a specific schedule to periodically review the safety of pesticides already in use.

- Make it easier to reduce or change uses of a pesticide when health concerns are raised about it instead of having to go through a lengthy review process first.

- Prohibit export of pesticides that are banned on crops in this country.

The proposal on cancer-causing pesticides would overturn the Delaney Clause of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which prohibits even negligible amounts of carcinogens in processed foods such as applesauce, ketchup and juices.

Already, environmental and consumer groups who were briefed by government officials Tuesday and Wednesday are condemning the move, while the Grocery Manufacturers of America and other industry representatives who attended separate briefing sessions praised it.

"We cannot accept a reform package that undermines a central public health concept embodied in the Delaney Clause," said Jay Feldman of the National Coalition Against Misuse of Pesticides. "If we allow that provision to be repealed, we undermine the longterm goal of getting cancer-causing pesticides out of the food."

"We feel strongly that carcinogens should not be in the food supply," said Polly Hoppins, director of World Wildlife Fund's agricultural pollution prevention project. But she applauded some other aspects of the administration's plan as a "good start."

Mark Nestlen of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture said the administration was moving in "a positive direction to make the changes in pesticide regulation that have been needed for several years."

The food safety legislation proposed by the EPA, FDA and Agriculture Department is to be presented at congressional hearings on Sept. 9.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., have proposed amending the pesticide law to allow the one-in-a-million cancer risk while broadening and toughening the law in other areas.

Farming, grocery and chemical industry groups have long maintained that modern monitoring equipment can detect such tiny amounts of a pesticide that foods with perfectly safe residue levels are being kept off the market. They argue the 1958 Delaney Clause is out of date.

EPA in the past skirted the law by interpreting it to mean that carcinogenic pesticides could be approved if they posed only negligible health risk.

But, acting on a suit by environmentalists, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year ordered the agency to adhere to the letter of Delaney, barring all carcinogens.

John Aguirre, director of federal government affairs for the National Food Processors Association, said he was looking for more detail on the full package but that overturning Delaney was "one of the most important changes" that was discussed.