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Pesticide Campaign Comes Under Fire

January 26, 1989|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

A produce industry campaign aimed at reducing the public's fears about pesticides has come under fire from consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

In a letter sent to many of the nation's supermarket executives, Nader urged grocers to distance themselves from the "misguided" public relations effort.

The program, scheduled to begin next month, was designed to counter extensive media coverage of the health threats posed by farm chemicals.

The principals behind the plan--the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Assn. and the Produce Marketing Assn.--hope to raise about $1.2 million to fund the campaign.

Nader's appeal, in the form of a letter, also asked grocers to reject any requests for contributions from the growers.

"This campaign will likely become both controversial and counterproductive for supermarkets who choose to participate," Nader wrote. "Despite what chemical companies and agribusiness interests claim, pesticide residues pose potentially serious health risks to American consumers and workers."

More than 1,000 of the letters were sent to the nation's retailers last week, according to Craig Merrilees, who coordinated the mailing for the San Francisco-based Consumer Pesticide Protection Project, a coalition of 12 organizations. The group's sole purpose is to oppose the pending produce-safety program.

"There were 375,000 tons of pesticides used on American farmland last year and that is too much," said Merrilees. "It's dangerous for the environment and poses problems for consumers. . . . The momentum is clearly going towards reducing pesticides in agriculture, in the environment and in (food)."

The preemptive criticism is a setback for the trade groups who will, nevertheless, press ahead with plans to emphasize that current government safeguards protect the public from farm-chemical hazards.

In fact, the as-yet unnamed program will be formally launched next month at the United Fruit and Vegetable Assn. national convention in New Orleans.

"It is unfortunate that consumer groups have decided to target this campaign without knowing what it is all about," said John McClung, a United Fruit spokesman in Alexandria, Va. "The pesticide residues that most consumers are exposed to in a normal environment represent no threat to health . . . . And we want to help supermarket operators answer any consumer concerns about agricultural chemicals."

To date, $800,000 has been raised to fund the effort, less than 10% of which was donated by grocers. The campaign, scheduled to run 18 months, will be operated by the Center for Produce Quality, a nonprofit foundation, McClung said.

Public opinion surveys are already under way in order to gauge consumers' current perceptions and understandings of pesticides, McClung said.

But Nader maintains that research is as important to consider in this issue as is prevailing opinion.

In his letter to retailers, Nader cites two of several recent pesticide studies in support of his appeal. The first, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, found that chemicals used on the food supply may be responsible for higher cancer death rates. He also names a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report that documented numerous cases where pesticides contaminated ground-water resources.

"Some people in the food industry believe it is best to ignore these problems, minimize the risks and delay urgently needed reforms," Nader wrote. "(However,) their public relations campaign won't convince scientists to change research conclusions, or consumers to stop demanding safer food."

Need for Study Cited

McClung contested Nader's interpretation of the studies.

"The National Academy of Sciences talked in terms of potential cancers and (the report) did not contain language on increased incidents of cancer. It concluded that this area needs to be studied," he said.

Regardless of the outcome, the recent episode further demonstrates that supermarkets have become a battleground in the pesticide controversy.

Last year, for instance, several chains employed private firms to test produce in order to independently monitor for unsafe or illegal pesticide levels. These analyses have been aggressively publicized as a means of attracting chemical-weary shoppers.

"The retailers hold the key to change," said Merrilees. "They are under increasing pressure to change their policies and buy produce grown with fewer pesticides."

The produce-safety campaign was designed as a way to address these fairly recent developments. And its formation comes at a time when many in the agriculture sector now acknowledge what previous polls have found: Food safety looms as a primary consumer concern. But, in this instance, the growers' strategy to address the wholesomeness issue may be thwarted.

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