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One Year After Scare About Apple-Crisping Additive, Problems Persist

February 26, 1990

BUENA, Wash. (AP) _ Stacks of firewood that used to be apple trees are grim reminders of a year that began with a ″60 Minutes″ report on the chemical Alar and ended with orchards bearing kindling instead of fruit.

Alar, which farmers used to slow the ripening and improve the crispness of their apples, entered the American consciousness last Feb. 26 with an immediate and devastating impact.

A symbol of health suddenly became a symbol of something else. Not since the Garden of Eden have apples had such a bad image.

Many of Washington state’s 4,500 apple growers were looking forward to a comeback year when CBS broadcast the ″60 Minutes″ segment based on studies done by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private consumer group.

The NRDC report on pesticides in childrens’ food, called ″Intolerable Risk,″ concluded that eating apples and apple products from trees treated with the growth regulator Alar increased cancer risk in children.

The report said the adult tolerances for Alar used by the federal government did not apply to children because they eat more apples and apple juice than adults.

The apple industry responded by vigorously protecting the use of chemicals and denouncing the NRDC for scare tactics and a thinly veiled attempt to remove all chemicals from food production.

The industry also attacked the report as unscientific, and said the federal government was the proper agent for determining which chemicals were safe.

The NRDC, which featured actress Meryl Streep, consumer activist Ralph Nader, and other celebrities on a carefully planned anti-Alar campaign, countered that federal regulation of chemicals was too slow, Alar was unnecessary, and its health dangers had been known for years.

The truth quickly became lost amid the duels on the Donahue talk show, the squabbles on a second ″60 Minutes,″ and the flip-flop of federal regulators who first announced that apples were safe to eat then pronounced Alar a probable carcinogen.

That confused consumers, and produced spectacles like school districts banning apples from cafeterias, one mother sending law officers to confiscate an apple from her child’s lunch, and grocers hastily erecting signs that their apples were Alar-free.

Growers of the nation’s $1 billion apple crop suffered revenue losses from lower sales and prices estimated at more than $100 million.

″It stayed in the press a long time,″ said grower Fred Valentine. ″We thought it would be shorter than what it was.″

Shortly after voluntarily removing Alar from the market last June, Uniroyal Chemical Co. asked EPA to cancel the chemical’s registration, which in effect made the chemical illegal to use after Nov. 17, 1989, said Lisa Engstrom, the EPA’s special review manager for Alar.

Apple growers are still faced with prices below the cost of production. They say the problem now is oversupply, not consumer fear.

But the downward slide started by the Alar scare has growers across Central Washington ripping out unprofitable red apple orchards and replacing them with pears or peaches.

″This is a disaster,″ said Terry Kelson, a field man for Inland Fruit and Produce Co. of Wapato and owner of a small orchard. ″I can never remember poorer returns.″

He estimated that Washington growers, who produce 60 percent of the nation’s apples, might voluntarily rip out 10 percent of their Red Delicious apple trees in the next year.

The chemical that spawned the scare is technically known as daminozide, and for two decades was sprayed on trees to keep apples on the branch longer, making them redder and crisper and extending the shelf life and harvest time.

Janet Hathaway, an NRDC lawyer in Washington, D.C., and co-author of the report, said the furor that caused Uniroyal to remove Alar from the market has made farmers more aware they must reduce chemical use.

″The most significant result by far is the improved awareness among both growers and consumers that residues in food can be a health issue,″ Ms. Hathaway said.

While the NRDC contends its real target was government regulators, most hurt by the report were the nation’s 20,000 apple growers, many of whom did not use Alar.

″My greatest regret is that growers were caught in the crossfire,″ Ms. Hathaway said. ″People who are legally using pesticides are very inadvertent targets of these types of campaigns.″

In Washington state, growers were hoping the high quality 1988 crop would help them rebound from a disastrous, weather-damaged crop the year before. For six months they were right.

But the Alar scare cut wholesale prices in half, and apple sales slumped for several months. As stockpiles built up, wholesale prices fell beneath the cost of production.

A $9.5 million federal buyout late last summer, the first in the history of the apple industry, failed to strengthen prices.

When the record 1989 crop was harvested last fall, warehouses were still holding 1988 apples.

″You’ve got holdover junk from the 1988 crop and the taint of Alar and that started to lower prices,″ said Bill Gammie, of Yakima’s Jack Frost Fruit Co. ″The Alar thing is hurting us.″

A state survey found that no Washington growers used Alar on the present bumper crop.

While prices are down 31 percent from last year, demand is improving. As of Jan. 31, 36.6 million boxes had been shipped, vs. 34.6 million in the comparable year-earlier period.

But wholesale prices for fresh apples hovered in the $8 per 42-pound box range most of the season, about $1 beneath the cost of production.

The value of orchards is also decreasing. The Yakima County assessor’s office recently estimated that the value of apple orchards dropped an average of $1,700 per acre in the past year, to about $3,700.

Many in the industry insist that the public is fast forgetting Alar.

″This issue became such a joke the way it was amplified. It was much ado about nothing,″ said Tom Hale, president of the Washington Apple Commission, an industry marketing group. ″Even last April two-thirds of the people thought it was overblown.″

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