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Is Perfect Produce Worth the Pesticides?

March 26, 1992|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"What price perfection?" is the question being asked of growers, consumer advocates and the public as federal regulators ponder whether government marketing standards encourage increased use of farm chemicals as a means of obtaining blemish-free produce.

At issue for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the subject of a federal hearing in San Francisco last week, is whether consumers really demand produce so perfect that it resembles a Rembrandt still life. Or would shoppers accept, for instance, surface scaring on citrus rind or slight mold on the outer leaves of lettuce if it meant reduced pesticides residues on food?

The federal system grades fresh fruit and vegetables according to variables such as size, color and ripeness in order to determine market worth. A USDA Fancy grade peach, for example, would bring a higher price than a lower-grade or ungraded peach, even though there may be no nutritional or taste differences.

In the 1990 Farm Bill, Congress instructed USDA to research whether federal appearance standards for produce were prompting farmers to harvest only perfect-looking crops or face economic penalty in the form of rejection from buyers at the wholesale and retail levels.

Nearly two dozen people testified at the San Francisco hearing, the second of two scheduled by the USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service.

Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a Washington-based advocacy group, is in the forefront of urging a change in produce grading standards. The group commissioned opinion surveys of growers that purportedly show support for pesticide reductions. According to the Public Voice data, 43% of the 225 apple growers and 26% of the 60 citrus growers questioned reported that they used "at least half of their pesticides for the purpose of protecting the surface appearance of their fruit."

But industry representatives insist that few pesticide applications are for cosmetic or appearance purposes. Michael J. Stuart, senior vice president of the Western Growers Assn. in Tustin, called the Public Voice data "flawed and inaccurate," because it attempted to draw industry-wide conclusions involving 240 crops based on data gathered from only citrus and apple growers.

"The very use of the word cosmetic suggests a trite and meaningless concern," Stuart said. "However, USDA grade standards . . . involve a wide range of fruit and vegetable attributes. For example: color, size, maturity, sugar content, decay, dirt, insect damage, mold, rancidity and other defects that are not purely cosmetic."

"The lawful use of pesticides does not create health risks," said Stuart. "Clearly, even if pesticides were regularly used purely for cosmetic purposes, which has been asserted by some groups, they still would not pose a threat to the American public."

(Stuart's safety reference is to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's pesticide monitoring program, which found that less than 2% of the domestic fruit and vegetables laboratory analyzed by the agency in 1990 were in violation of federal residue levels.)

A representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council also testified at the hearing and endorsed reducing grading standards because of their direct and indirect influence on farm chemical usage.

"In the case of mildew, complete control is required to qualify as U.S. Fancy lettuce, the highest grade," said Jennifer Curtis, research associate at the council's San Francisco office. "(And) total mildew control can only be assured by prophylactic use of fungicide. (But) complete mildew control in lettuce is not necessary. Mildew most often forms on the outer leaves. Since these are removed (by retailers) before the lettuce is presented to consumers, little harm would result if some mildew were permitted. The prospect of having the crop rejected, however, causes farmers to apply fungicides even when mildew risks are low."

Growers associations, such as Stuart's, maintain that even if the grading system were eliminated by the federal government the food industry would have to voluntarily adopt something in its place.

"Grade and labeling standards are essential due to the unique nature of the industry," Stuart said. "Unlike a manufactured product, fruits and vegetables are highly perishable. Consequently, the trade in these products over great distances is usually conducted on pure trust. Grade standards make it possible for a buyer on the East Coast, or in Europe or Japan, to buy produce from the West Coast without ever laying eyes on it. In essence, these standards create a common language for everyone involved in the trade."

What is not known is how the public would respond to less than perfect fruit and vegetables.

Public Voice and the Natural Resources Defense Council cite public opinion surveys that show that consumers will accept blemishes if it means fewer chemical residues. However, the Western Growers Assn. points to a trade industry journal's poll that found that 97% of those queried indicated that "appearance and condition of the product were (either) very important or extremely important when selecting a specific produce item."

The debate on the use of farm chemicals comes only a few months before the National Academy of Sciences releases its long-awaited report on "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children," a study that will address whether present federal regulations adequately protect children from chemical residues in food.

The USDA is accepting written comments on the grading standards and pesticide usage question until April 3. Address remarks to: Fruit and Vegetable Division, Room 2077-S, AMS, USDA, P.O. Box 96456, Washington, D.C. 20090-6456.

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