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Unsafe Chemicals on Our Produce? : Government Accused of Neglecting Consumer Health

July 07, 1988|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The federal government is doing an inadequate job of protecting the nation's food supply from potentially harmful agricultural chemicals, according to a recently published book.

"Pesticide Alert: A Guide to Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables" by Lawrie Mott and Karen Snyder (Sierra Club Books: $15.95) chronicles the fallout from the annual application of more than 1.5 billion pounds of chemicals on food and related farm commodities in this country.

The book, whose authors are analysts for the Natural Resources Defense Council, uses data collected by the federal government, the state of California and elsewhere to demonstrate that virtually all best-selling produce items contain chemical residue.

A listing of the most commonly used pesticides detected on various fruits and vegetables is the book's centerpiece. There are also numerous suggestions for minimizing exposure.

Many Residues Remain

"The increased availability and variety of fresh (produce) is, in part, due to the extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides," the authors state. "Yet the residues of . . . agricultural chemicals can remain in our food. The fruits and vegetables in your supermarket may contain invisible hazards to your health. . . ."

The threat posed by these chemicals is such that Mott and Snyder repeatedly take the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to task for not doing more to control pesticide applications on crops.

The agencies are criticized for allowing dangerous chemicals to be used by farmers, for miscalculating the hazards these substances pose to health and for failing to properly monitor the presence of pesticides on produce after it's harvested.

For instance, the authors state that FDA scientists can detect only about 40% of the chemicals currently used on fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, the EPA, which approves the initial usage of the compounds, used data from the 1960s to determine produce consumption and, thus, underestimated consumer exposure to chemical residues on these foods.

The book focuses on chemical analyses of produce conducted primarily by the FDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture during the period from 1982 to 1985. During this time frame, 48% of all the produce tested by the government agencies contained some kind of chemical.

Strawberries Have Most

Those crops with the most frequent incidence of residue, or containing detectable amounts more than 50% of the time, were strawberries, peaches, celery, cherries and cucumbers. At the other end of the scale, the items virtually chemical-free, or having pesticides in 10% or less of the tests, were onions, cauliflower, watermelon, bananas and corn.

The publication of "Pesticide Alert" has been much feared by the produce industry and, not surprisingly, one trade publication recently called the book "sensationalism."

Critics of the work cite the authors' failure to specify the exact amount of the chemical compounds being found on produce. In fact, most of these residues are minute and can be measured only in parts per million or parts per billion. Furthermore, even Mott and Synder acknowledge that, in a sizable number of cases, the chemical traces can easily be eliminated by a thorough washing of the produce. However, there is an even greater number of pesticides whose persistence on food is unknown, the book states.

Imports Are Hazardous

Particularly troublesome, Mott and Snyder state, is the amount of chemicals used on imported produce. Many foreign countries have weak pesticide regulatory programs. As a result, more residues are found on imported fruit and vegetables than on those grown in this country, according to FDA chemical analyses quote in the book.

"Imported products pose a unique hazard to the safety of the American food supply," according to "Pesticide Alert."

Though the book may diminish consumer confidence in the safety of fresh produce, there were some encouraging findings for farm interests.

In California, for instance, which grows 51% of the nation's vegetables and a large percentage of its fruit, only 14% of the produce analyzed by state labs contained pesticide residues. On the other hand, the figure for residues on produce for the entire country is 38%. Imports, meanwhile, have residues on 64% of the items sampled by government agencies. The high incidence of residue on imports has led the authors to call for "origin labeling" of fruit and vegetable items on produce counters.

Also of interest, the authors point out, is the FDA's failure to enforce a federal regulation requiring supermarkets to post signs or labels notifying consumers of the presence of wax on produce. The problem with waxes, according to Mott and Synder, is that the compounds can trap the pesticide residues in the produce.

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