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1989 News Events in Review


The food world was rocked by a series of unprecedented news events in 1989. Virtually the entire industry--from farm to market--underwent significant change as a result. And consumer attitudes toward the food supply also have been seriously altered during a year in which many commodities came under intense scrutiny.

Because 1989 was such a momentous year for food news, several of the major highlights are worth a review.

Alar, Chile and Public Opinion--Certainly, the most stunning month was March when public concern over chemical residues in produce hit record levels as stories of Alar in apples and poisoned Chilean grapes gripped the nation.

The furor began when the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a report claiming that pesticide residues in produce pose a greater cancer risk to children than adults.

The coverage of the NRDC study focused on a growth regulator--Alar--used on apples. The apple industry, devastated by heightened consumer fears, estimates that its losses in 1989 will exceed $250 million. Since then, Uniroyal has announced it will no longer sell Alar in the United States and the Environmental Protection Agency also moved to ban the compound. The NRDC plans to continue its campaign to rid the food supply of about 60 cancer-causing chemicals.

Following on the heels of the Alar and apples controversy was the alleged poisoning of Chilean grapes with cyanide. Upon discovery of two tainted grapes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered a ban on all fruit from Chile.

The losses to Chilean exporters and their U.S. representatives were about $100 million. Subsequently, several news reports have suggested that the FDA mishandled the laboratory tests of the imported fruit and that the results were inconclusive, at best. The agency stands behind its Chilean fruit ban.

Opinion polls that tracked the fallout from the Alar and Chilean grape incidents found a deeply disturbed public. In the weeks following the two controversies, 82% of those surveyed said that even minute amounts of farm chemicals pose a serious health hazard. The poll was conducted for the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based supermarket trade association. The finding was the highest ever recorded in the 16 years of consumer polling conducted by the group. Upon release of the results, FMI stated that "public confidence, once shaken, is slow to rebuild."

Ironically, lost in the month's furor surrounding pesticides was a National Research Council report that recommended daily consumption of at least five servings of produce in order to reduce the risk of cancer. The group, which is a part of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that the benefits of such a diet in terms of a reduced risk of lung, stomach and colon cancer far outweighed any increased exposure an individual might receive from pesticide residues.

Seafood Under the Microscope--The past 12 months were also turbulent for the seafood industry. The year found no lessening in calls for a mandatory government inspection program for fish and shellfish. Critics have claimed that the majority of seafood is not scrutinized by federal or state officials. Some consumer groups also charged that, as a result, fish is more likely to be contaminated than other protein sources. Congressional support for an intensified inspection program grew in 1989 and the industry's leading trade association, the National Fisheries Institute, also went on record as favoring a more effective government effort.

Aside from the inspection debate, federal health officials placed increased pressure on the seafood industry to improve its handling practices. The FDA informed industry representatives in a series of regional hearings in April that contamination rates for cooked shellfish were unacceptable. The agency also restated a public warning against eating raw or undercooked fish or shellfish.

The warnings came not only from the government but from the restaurant industry. In its recent issue, Pacific Fishing magazine quotes a top executive from Marriott Corp. as telling shellfish industry representatives that "if you don't give us safety for our customers, we won't serve your products."

Seafood producers and processors made an effort to counter the negative publicity with a $6.5-million advertising campaign that urged consumers to "Eat Fish and Shellfish Twice a Week." The ads began appearing in October and were narrated by a fish cartoon character. The effort is expected to continue well into 1990.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in April did not dramatically disturb Alaska's extensive fishing industry. However, the partial closure of Prince William Sound underscored the seafood industry's continuing problems with declining water quality.

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