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Gimmicks Won't Do

May 21, 1989

The Deukmejian Administration is going the wrong way in trying to calm consumer fears about pesticide residues on food. It's up to the Legislature to stop the governor's move toward an expensive public relations campaign that will not increase consumer protection.

At issue is the Quality and Safety Assurance Program that the California Department of Food and Agriculture wants to establish. After the recent controversy over use of the chemical daminozide--or Alar, a possible carcinogen--on apples, the department proposed selling growers a state certification seal to put on their produce if they met existing pesticide regulations. The catch is, that even when a grower follows existing regulations, the crop may not be free of pesticides. Most food is not tested for pesticide residues under current regulations, and the proposal would give assurances that food is safe when it may not be.

The department planned to put the program into effect quietly. But once journalists, including Times staff writer Richard C. Paddock, reported on the idea, the Deukmejian administration was forced to go to the Legislature for budget approval. The measure has been bottled up--but not killed--in the Assembly and comes up Monday in a Senate budget subcommittee.

It's time to send the agriculture department and the lobbyists who backed the measure a stern signal that public relations gimmicks won't do. In its place, there should be a testing and certification program that really does more to reduce risks from pesticides.

Reaction to the Alar controversy continues nationally as well. On Monday, the International Apple Institute, a trade association to which 90% of the growers belong, announced that this fall growers will voluntarily stop using the chemical, which enhances the color of red apples and lengthens the harvest period by keeping apples on the trees longer. Growers stand to lose $100 million in reduced sales this year because of consumer fears over residues of the chemical.

The federal government proposes to bar use of Alar, probably by 1991, but says there is no reason for an emergency ban before then. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental law firm that first raised questions publicly about Alar, says, however, that children are especially at risk because of their size and eating habits and therefore Alar should be banned immediately.

This latest turn demonstrates the unwieldiness of the government's necessary but time-consuming legal processes for banning a potentially hazardous substance. If the trade association that includes 90% of the industry is willing to remove the product from use voluntarily, why not also remove the remaining uncertainty and make the ban effective now? It's no wonder consumers don't know what to believe. That kind of uncertainty also leads to ill-advised projects like California's so-called quality assurance program.

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