SAN FRANCISCO — Mention the word carcinogen at a food industry convention and people start shifting uncomfortably in their seats. The phenomenon occurred again last week here at the California League of Food Processors' annual convention when a seminar on toxins in food began.
The league consists of firms involved in canning, freezing or drying the state's fruit and vegetable crop. Total production of the organization's members amounts to about half the nation's total processed produce.
Restlessness With Conflicting Information
The restlessness in the food industry over the safety issue is a result of conflicting information from government agencies, health professionals and consumer groups regarding the threats posed by various chemicals. Whether the focus was on additives, preservatives or pesticides, the message at this gathering was that science's ability to detect contaminants in food is so keen that a problem can be found virtually anywhere.
"In the past 20 years (technology) has improved radically in order to detect (harmful) substances in food from parts per million to a fraction of parts per billion," said Thomas H. Jukes Ph.D., UC Berkeley medical physics professor. "However, we don't know how much (of a substance) leads to cancer. One molecule is enough, some say."
Jukes went on to ridicule the one-molecule theory claiming that many widely used foods have proven to be cancer agents, yet the overall health of Americans has improved as measured by life expectancy. Additionally, the decision over whether to ban a particular chemical from foods is a judgment call most often made by politicians and not scientists, he said.
"If the public wants a bountiful food supply, then they must come to grips with pesticide residues in their foods," Jukes said.
For example, using a strict interpretation of federal statutes that require a ban on all cancer-causing substances would mean that dietary fats would be prohibited in foods, Jukes said. "Fats are a carcinogen, and if you eliminate those then you eliminate yourself."
Chemical Overdependence Charged
A toxicologic consultant to the Sierra Club said that Jukes was advocating an overdependence upon chemicals.
"I don't think it is a (choice between) 'we've got to have pesticides in our foods' or . . . maggots and fruit flies in (produce) or even a non-bountiful supply," said Alvin J. Greenberg Ph.D., in a telephone interview.
Additionally, Greenberg said the one-molecule theory may not be applicable at this time but it should serve as a goal for the future.
"We should aim to reduce the level of our exposure (to carcinogens) to the lowest level that we possibly can. We are living in a techno-chemical society that has made mistakes in the past and we need to clean them up. To accept certain levels of risks can be detrimental, particularly when it comes to eating food and drinking water," he said.
A pesticide manufacturers representative volunteered during the toxins seminar that his industry, and by inference agriculture in general, has a credibility problem.
"We have a terrible perception among the public," said Jack D. Early, Ph.D., president of the National Agricultural Chemicals Assn. "The actual threat (to consumers) from pesticides was recently ranked 29th in a science publication. Yet, in an accompanying public opinion survey, respondents placed pesticides in third place (in terms of public threat)."
Early said that chemical companies now must spend about $40 million in research in order to accumulate the data necessary for the government to approve a single pesticide versus $7 million that was required not long ago. The high costs have deterred development of new pesticides and have left farmers little choice but to rely on chemicals that insects are becoming increasingly resistant to.
On the Ragged Edge
"The problem is that we are on the ragged edge of not being able to protect some crops," he said.
Pesticides' image notwithstanding, the public perception of toxic substances in the environment has spurred an increase in the state's role.
"Public interest (in toxins, carcinogens, etc.) has exploded like no one thought it would," said Arnold Peters, consultant to the state Legislature's Assembly Committee on Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials. "Three or four years ago some news stories and research on toxins made the area a sideline (for California legislators). Today it is not."
Peters said that in 1984 more than 100 bills were introduced in the Assembly on toxic materials, including many related to agriculture and the food industry. The number is expected to increase this year because "everyone wants to carry (sponsor) a toxic materials bill," he said.
"It's a rather amazing phenomenon and an extremely volatile situation," Peters said.
In an interview apart from the toxins seminar, Robert A. Fox, chairman and chief executive officer for Del Monte Corp., said there is a growing concern over contaminants.
Good Track Record
"Food safety and the environment are more important to everyone. However, the food industry has a good track record on safety and is in the forefront of keeping (foods) safe."
For instance, Fox said that despite lingering questions on the safety of artificial sweeteners, such as cyclamates, saccharin and aspartame, there has been no corresponding decline in the consumption of diet soft drinks, which use the sugar substitutes.
"Things (contamination problems) do come up, but nothing dramatic. There have been no serious recalls of frozen or dried foods," Fox said.