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Watermelons Sweet, Feelings Bitter After Poisonous '85 Crop

July 06, 1986|RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

This summer's watermelon crop is sweet, bountiful and free of pesticide residues, say San Joaquin Valley growers and state inspectors, putting behind them last year's long July 4 weekend, when 1,000 people were poisoned by pesticide-contaminated melons traced to two Kern County farms.

In what was described as the "largest food-born pesticide outbreak in North American history" by Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer, director of the California Department of Health Services, 692 poisonings were reported in California and another 483 elsewhere in the Western United States and in Canada. No deaths were attributed to the tainted melons, which were contaminated by the pesticide aldicarb.

Aldicarb, sold under the trade name Temik, is "the most acutely toxic pesticide registered in the U.S.," according to Kizer. It cannot legally be used on watermelons. The discovery of aldicarb residues on melons after the outbreak raised questions about the California Department of Food and Agriculture's ability to protect consumers and triggered a $2-million effort to upgrade pesticide residue monitoring, officials say.

'A Hell of a Lesson'

"Agriculture has learned a hell of a lesson from this watermelon deal; there is going to be a lot more self-policing out there by all farmers, believe me," said California Department of Food and Agriculture Director Claire Berryhill, the state's top pesticide regulator.

"In the long run the melon deal helped. . . . Without it we would never have gotten the funding to beef up enforcement and residue testing," Berryhill said. "Since then we've tightened down the whole system, especially with Temik. We've got a much better handle on that than before."

Aldicarb, a nematocide manufactured by Union Carbide Co. and used in the soil to kill tiny, root-sucking worms, is applied primarily on cotton-producing land, Berryhill explained.

Last July the Agriculture Department's laboratories were not equipped to detect aldicarb residues on any produce. Alerted by poison center reports that 18 people had become ill on July 4 after eating watermelons purchased in Los Angeles and San Francisco area supermarkets, the department immediately quarantined the entire 30-million ton crop.

At the very height of the season, the state's melon growers found that they could not market their crop without field tests and a state sticker certifying their melons were aldicarb-free. It is estimated that a third of the crop, worth nearly $50 million, was lost.

Eventually, agriculture officials traced the aldicarb residues to the farms of Tim Yaksitch, Jimmie Icardo and his son, Gary Icardo. Civil suits were filed by the Agriculture Department against the three farmers in Kern County Superior Court, alleging they had unlawfully applied aldicarb to watermelon fields. The complaints charge that other pesticide regulations were also violated, and the state is seeking civil penalties totaling $29,500 against Yaksitch and $10,000 against the Icardos.

Trial Up to 3 Years Away

The suit was filed in February but is not expected to go to trial for as long as three years, according to attorneys from both sides.

Investigation of the Icardo and Yaksitch cases uncovered widespread violations of the state's stringent pesticide regulations, according to Assistant Atty. Gen. William D. Cunningham, who represents the Agriculture Department in the civil cases.

"This isn't just a case of contaminated melons," he said. " . . .We found that these farmers weren't documenting the use of all their pesticides, not just aldicarb. . . . That's why the only way regulators can find out what is being used is when people call in sick."

Both the Icardos and Yaksitch also grow cotton and have permits to use Temik legally on that farmland, agriculture officials explained.

Speaking for their clients, attorneys for Icardo and Yaksitch denied all of the allegations. "We have denied any wrongdoing whatsoever," said John Petrini, a Bakersfield attorney representing the Icardos. "We haven't seen any evidence that aldicarb was on any Icardo watermelons." He called the other allegations listed in the suits "technical, minor violations."

By law, farmers and licensed pesticide applicators must get permits from the county agriculture commissioner to use aldicarb or any other chemical on the state's restricted-use list. They must also give notice of their intent to use such materials 24 hours before application and file a "use report" with the commissioner afterwards, officials said.

When state health officials investigated last year's poisonings, they discovered that substantially more aldicarb was being sold to the state's farmers than was being reported used. Kizer wrote Berryhill, warning that use of aldicarb appeared to be uncontrolled.

"Up to 30% of the (legal) use of aldicarb (by cotton growers) was not being reported. . . . There wasn't a single (use) report from them," said Jim Wells, the Agriculture Department's chief of enforcement.

Adopted New System

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