WASHINGTON — The manufacturer of Alar, the apple chemical that stirred a national furor over possible health effects, said Friday it is taking the substance off the U.S. market immediately.
Uniroyal Chemical Co. continued to defend the chemical as safe but said continued use on apples "is causing doubt and confusion about the safety of America's food supply."
Apple growers and processors had pleaded for such action because fears about Alar had drastically cut into apple-industry sales.
The company said sales of daminozide, which is marketed under the name Alar, would continue to about 70 markets outside the United States, including some that export apples and apple products to this country.
However, a spokeswoman for the International Apple Institute said most imported apples are green ones, such as Granny Smiths, which are not treated with Alar.
Supplies of the chemical held by U.S. customers may be returned for refunds, the company said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun regulatory action that would ban the use of daminozide in food products because tests in laboratory animals have indicated that the chemical can cause cancer.
Uniroyal has disputed the findings. And James Wylie, company vice president, said Friday: "We want to emphasize that we have not changed our opinion about the safety of daminozide."
The EPA estimates that from 5% to 15% of the U.S. apple crop is treated with Alar, a growth regulator that improves the apple's appearance and gives it longer shelf life.
"Our voluntary action is taken to ease public confusion and, we hope, to let the proven scientific process work," Wylie said.
"Daminozide has become the focus of a needless controversy that is causing doubt and confusion about the safety of America's food supply--a needless controversy that is hurting the apple industry and the American public," he said.
The company indicated that it intends to resume selling Alar if a government scientific review, scheduled to be completed next year, concludes the chemical is safe.
Apple growers applauded the decision by Uniroyal, but some suggested that the company should have made the move much earlier. The International Apple Institute estimates that growers have lost more than $100 million because of the apple scare over Alar in recent months.
"They are darn late in getting to this point. We've been after them for a long time and consumer confidence has been affected," said John McAlister of Tree Top Inc., the nation's largest apple juice maker.
Alar Scare Cut Sales
McAlister, in Yakima, Wash., said that Tree Top's sales have dropped more than 20% since the Alar controversy began in February, even though Tree Top and other processors have said repeatedly they do not use Alar-treated apples.
"This action is most welcomed . . . since it will allay any remaining concerns consumers may have about small levels of Alar in apples and apple products," said Larry Davenport, executive director of the Processed Apples Institute.
Many growers have stopped using the product since concern about its health effects gained widespread attention earlier this year. Wylie, although not providing any specific production figures, said sales of Alar in the United States have dropped 75% during the last three years.
Earlier this year, a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private environmental group, said young children are particularly at risk from Alar and a variety of pesticides used on fruits and vegetables because they consume large amounts, especially relative to their weight, of apple products, other fruits and vegetables.
Although the government said the levels of Alar in apples were not hazardous, the private group's report prompted many parents to question whether they should continue to provide apple products to their youngsters. School districts in a number of major cities for a time stopped providing apples in school lunchrooms. Los Angeles was one of those districts, but it has since resumed apple distribution.
Janet Hathaway, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the Uniroyal decision represented "a capitulation to public opinion" but that consumers could still be exposed to the chemical because it will continue to be sold in countries that export apple products to the United States.
But Maureen Miklavic, a spokeswoman for the International Apple Institute, said exposure to Alar from its use in other countries would be unlikely. Not only are most imports green apples and thus free of Alar, she said, but imported apple concentrates are expected to be closely monitored by the processing industry for possible Alar content.
Congress is considering legislation that would prohibit the importing of Alar-treated apples.