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Produce Industry Takes Pesticide Critics to Task

December 01, 1988|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

Recent developments indicate the produce industry is taking the offensive in the war of words over pesticide residues rather than just responding to criticism by consumer groups.

In fact, agriculture interests are now conducting advertising and educational campaigns of their own to counter months of negative publicity over the use of chemicals on fruits and vegetables.

One of the more active grower organizations is the California Table Grape Commission. The Fresno-based group is distributing a pamphlet that is highly critical of a Cesar Chavez-led boycott that has singled out grapes. The publication maintains that the fruit has "consistently passed local, state, federal and international food safety tests."

The leaflet further contends that farm workers are adequately protected by state regulations from dangerous pesticide exposure and includes testimonials to that effect from laborers, labor officials and some church leaders.

The commission has also authorized $250,000 to argue its case in full-page newspaper advertisements. However, only half of the allocation has been spent because the trade group now believes consumers are no longer interested in the issue, according to an article in The Packer, a trade publication.

The decision to scale-back the ad campaign was made after two privately commissioned opinion surveys found widespread public disinterest in the boycott, the paper reported.

Another source of the current debate was the June publication of Pesticide Alert (Sierra Club Books: $15.95). The book claimed that many fresh produce items contained illegal pesticide residues and that the federal government was doing an inadequate job of monitoring the use of these chemicals.

Now, however, the California Citrus Mutual is distributing reprints of a scientific journal article that dismissed the book as "pander(ing) to consumer suspicion."

The review of Pesticide Alert appeared in a recent issue of Food Technology and was written by two Cornell University professors: J.H. Hotchkiss and C.F. Wilkinson. The authors stated, in part, that "The book is nonscientific and trivial in its treatment of pesticide toxicology . . . and while many of the statements contain a kernel of truth, most are so shallow and simplistics as to be misleading."

The California Citrus Mutual, a Visalia-based agriculture group, claimed that negative review provided "the rest of the story."

A different tack is being taken by the American Council on Science and Health in New York, which recently published a booklet entitled, "Pesticides: Helpful or Harmful?"

The 64-page report concludes that the benefits of pesticides "vastly outweigh the risks" and that the compounds have an "excellent safety record."

Agricultural chemicals increased food and fiber production, improved health protection and enhanced the environment, according to a summary of the report.

In support of the claims, the booklet states that pesticides usage prevents food shortages by raising crop yields. The chemicals also protect public health by limiting human diseases caused by insects, molds and vermin. And pesticides, according to the publication, also improve the environment by making plants less susceptible to disease.

"The charge that pesticides 'contaminate' America's food is not founded on scientific fact. Much scientific evidence supports the conclusion that traces of pesticide residues in food pose no hazard to human health," the booklet states.

Most ambitious of the industry's efforts, though, is a $1.2 million educational campaign being planned by two trade groups. The program, organized by the Produce Marketing Assn. and the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Assn., is titled the "Campaign to Reinforce Public Confidence in Produce," according to The Packer.

The effort is expected to last as long as two years, but no formal starting date has yet been announced.

A Clean Bill--One food safety issue that growers need not worry about is the presence of Listeria monocytogenes-- a harmful bacteria--in produce. Tests of both frozen and fresh vegetables, conducted earlier this year, found no evidence of the pathogen, according to the Journal of Food Science.

The research was prompted by previous reports that discovered L. monocytogenes in a host of meat products and dairy foods. There was also evidence that the bacteria was isolated from more highly processed items such as coleslaw.

In mild forms, Listeriosis can cause fever. But there have also been fatalities associated with the contaminant. The most publicized such incident occurred in Los Angeles during 1985 when more than three dozen deaths were linked to the consumption of a Mexican-style soft cheese. Most of the victims were newborns.

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