Ten years after Alar, food safety still debated

Apple spray: Still unclear whether Alar really was a hazard


   YAKIMA, Wash. -- Ten years have passed since the pesticide Alar briefly gave red apples all the appeal of the poisoned fruit offered to Snow White by the evil queen.

   An environmental group's 1989 report on the risk of chemicals in children's diets suddenly gave wholesome, nutritious apples a deadly reputation. School cafeterias banned them. Grocers posted signs proclaiming theirs were Alar-free.

   One panicked mother sent police after a school bus to retrieve an apple from her child's lunch.

   Uniroyal Chemical Co. pulled Alar, its brand name for the chemical daminozide, off the market a few months later and asked the Environmental Protection Agency to cancel its registration.

   But 10 years later, it's still unclear whether Alar really was a hazard. And the broader debate over food safety continues to make news.

   A study in the March issue of Consumer Reports warns parents that current pesticide residue on peaches, pears, apples and spinach may be unsafe for young children.

   The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., recently took out a full-page ad in The New York Times with a similar warning, saying that getting rid of Alar didn't go far enough.
Pesticides still disputed

   "Ten years after Alar, the food supply still contains a number of pesticides," says Todd Hettenbach, a research analyst for the group.

   But Gilbert Ross, medical director for the American Council on Science and Health in Washington, contends the original reporting on Alar was distorted.

   "You don't need protection from non-threats such as this," says Ross, whose public health consumer-advocacy group accepts contributions from both corporations and not-for-profit foundations. "We need protection from environmentalists' hysterics."

   That's disputed by Lawrie Mott, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of the authors of the 1989 report, "Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children's Food."

   "The food supply is safer with Alar off the market," Mott says.

   The council's report concluded there was an increased cancer risk for children eating fresh and processed red apples from trees sprayed with Alar, a growth regulator that improved color and shelf life.

   When 60 Minutes did a 13-minute segment on the report Feb. 26, 1989, it started a public relations nightmare for apple growers across the country.

   As many as 40 million viewers saw Ed Bradley's piece, which was illustrated with a skull and crossbones superimposed on a red apple.

   The message, a lawyer for Washington state growers would contend later, was: "Eat an apple today, die tomorrow."

   Consumer activist Ralph Nader and actress Meryl Streep urged a ban on Alar.
Apple growers took big hit

   The furor cost apple growers across the country more than $100 million in reduced sales from their $1 billion crop. An undetermined number of growers went out of business or switched to other varieties or crops.

   At the time, only about 15 percent of U.S. apple growers were believed to be using Alar, but all were tarred by the panic's brush.

   "The government wasn't able to respond about the safety of apple products," recalls Wally Ewart, vice president for scientific affairs for the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima. "It did not come out quickly and say we're ensuring a safe food supply."

   The Alar scare cut wholesale apple prices in half, below the cost of production, and sales were poor for several months. At the end of the summer, the government initiated a $9.5 million federal buyout.

   More than a year later, in December 1990, Washington apple growers sued CBS over the 60 Minutes report, seeking damages of $250 million.

   The class-action lawsuit alleging product disparagement went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1996, the justices let stand lower court rulings that dismissed the case on grounds that the plaintiffs failed to prove the report contained false statements.
Quality variability affected?

   Despite the widespread alarm in 1989, the industry did bounce back rather quickly.

   "It's my impression the immediate effects were pretty well dissipated by the beginning of the next harvest season," says R. Thomas Schotzko, an agricultural economist at Washington State University in Pullman.

   A more difficult effect to measure is that of Alar's loss on the "storability" of red apples, Schotzko says.

   Without Alar, it costs more to store the apples and more careful management of the harvest is required to maintain quality, he says.

   "Although I've not heard anyone really talk about it -- in a sense, it's water under a bridge -- it may be a factor in the variability in quality that is being discussed within the industry today," Schotzko says.

   Ross contends the Natural Resources Defense Council did "a hatchet job with no valid scientific evidence to support condemning this substance as a dangerous carcinogen."

   Both Mott and Ewart say the Alar issue eventually led to Congress' enactment of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, which requires the EPA to assess accumulated risk of exposure to pesticides.