Although natural-food enthusiasts had been trumpeting the "natural is safe, man-made is suspect" position since the mid-1960s, the report caused panic among many parents because it highlighted dangers to children.
The NRDC claimed that children were more likely to be affected by the chemical because they eat more applesauce and drink more apple juice than adults. School districts quickly yanked apples from their menus; Uniroyal, the manufacturer of Alar, took the pesticide off the market.
Recovery from the Alar scare was slow, and it was compounded by food-poisoning incidents in the late 1980s. Chemicals used to kill aphids, to make fruit and vegetables plumper, and to make animals more muscular were indicted by many. By the end of 1989, it was increasingly difficult for consumers to tell whether any chemicals were safe. Organic foods were the preferred alternative.
In a Louis Harris Poll conducted for Organic Gardening magazine, two-thirds of those queried said they would choose organic foods for their long-term health effects. At least 85% said they would buy organically grown fruits and vegetables if they cost the same as their conventionally farmed counterparts. And almost half of those asked said they thought the federal government was doing a poor job protecting consumers from potentially harmful pesticides in produce.
But is this penchant for organic merely another in Americans' temporary love affairs with food? Or will residue-free food become the watchword of the '90s?
Steve Daniels, executive editor of Organic Gardening, thinks the latter will be the case. He explains that the 1988 poll--taken before the Alar and other pesticide scares--showed a similar consumer interest in organics. That, he says, demonstrated that the interest is more than a fad.
"The message of this poll is clear . . . . Americans realize that the organic alternative is the answer, and they want government and conventional agriculture businesses to respond to their demands," he says.
"The organic mandate is not a passing fad fueled by fear but a clear preference fueled by reason."
Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, a consumer-education organization, disagrees. The pesticide phobia is very likely to continue into the '90s, she says, but it won't be due to consumer logic.
Like the food fads that preceded it, the demand for organic foods will result from a blurring of real safety concerns--such as enforcing safe application of chemicals--with exaggerated ones, she says. And, like the rest, she says, it will be a fad "with no benefit to health."
"I have to agree that this fear is indeed being enhanced, and I don't know what it's going to take to make people see what demagoguery this is. Pesticide residues have never been proven unsafe.
"People have a real confusion merging real concerns with hypothetical ones," Whelan says. They tend to want to blame anyone but themselves for possible risk from disease . . . (so they) run to health food."