Entrepreneurs hope to capitalize on consumer pesticide concerns with the introduction of household cleansers designed to remove chemical residues that may be present on fruit and vegetables.
There are several such liquid formulations, or washes, being offered to supermarket chains for placement in store produce sections. But only in the past week, or so, have local retailers seriously considered selling the products.
The change of heart was prompted by the uproar over farm chemicals which began in earnest a month ago with the release of a report on the health threat posed to children from pesticide residue in foods.
However, there are limits to--and questions about--the cleansers' effectiveness.
In particular, the washes only remove those pesticides which remain on the surface of a produce item. Other chemical residues, or those classified as systemic, remain unchanged after repeated washing because they enter the inner cell structure of fruit and vegetables.
There are no hard figures on exactly how many agricultural chemicals are, in fact, systemic.
Pesticide Alert (Sierra Club Books: $15.95), a highly critical survey of the 127 most commonly used farm compounds on produce, reported that less than half of all pesticides can be removed by washing alone.
In fact, 39.3% of these chemicals are thought to remain on the surface, another 18.2% are systemic and the invasive properties of 42.5% have not been fully ascertained, according to the book.
There is also no way of knowing which foods may contain residues. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's pesticide monitoring program, 57% of the fruit and vegetables tested contained no chemical traces. Thirty-nine percent contained legal levels of farm compounds, 3% were considered technical violations, or where a pesticide was used on the wrong crop, and 1% were classified as illegal residues, the agency reported.
Some brands of washes being marketed employ surfactants, or a class of chemicals which, in combination with water, act to remove wax, dirt and pesticides residues without penetrating the fruit or vegetable flesh. Surfactants can take many forms including something as simple as a commercially available detergent.
The FDA has yet to formally review any of the produce washes now on the market. If the products were found to leave their own residue on foods, after the cleansing's completion, then federal regulations would require FDA approval of the process.
Such action would be necessary because any wash-related compound remaining on foods can be ingested. As such, they would be considered an additive and thus require a lengthly FDA review process.
"If these products are ever shown to leave a residue on foods, then the Environmental Protection Agency and the FDA would pay heed," said Emil Corwin, an FDA spokesman.
Two Los Angeles-area manufacturers claim that their washes, when properly applied, are residue-free and comply with federal regulations.
One of these is Pure Sense which is promoted as a non-toxic, tasteless and odorless liquid sold in 16-ounce bottles.
"Ours is a solution that removes substances that are not readily removed by water alone," said Steven Abo, president of Pure Sense, Inc., and the product's formulator.
The wash, he says, is effective in removing much of the wax found on apples, cucumbers and other items. It is as effective against those pesticides, fungicides and bacteria that may be present on peel or skin.
"Pure Sense will help lower the chemical levels on food," he said. "But we can't make your food into the quality that you'd find in the Garden of Eden. But we can improve it substantially, effectively and safely."
Abo said that he began developing Pure Sense about nine months ago, or well before pesticide concerns became acute.
"I'm not saying that food is horrible and that there are all these chemicals on it . . . nor am I suggesting that people stop buying produce," he said. "But they should use a product like mine, or someone else's product with similar capabilities."
Pure Sense, Abo said, can also be used to cleanse food other the produce. He recommends it for treating meat, fish and wooden cutting boards.
Sales Jump in Recent Months
Although he would not reveal exact figures, Abo said that sales of Pure Sense have gone up "tremendously" since its introduction in January. The increased demand has forced his company to vacate its current apartment-sized facility for one measuring 15,000 square feet.
And Pure Sense will get even greater exposure in the coming days as the Vons Companies begins selling the cleanser in its more than 360 stores.
Richard G. Spezzano, Vons vice president for produce, said that he has reviewed a half dozen washes in the past two years.
"Every time I've been sent a sample, we would have our quality control laboratory test it. And if it didn't meet our standards then we rejected it," he said.
A number of the produce washes were found deficient.