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Produce Without Pesticide Residue Gaining Stamp of Approval : Oxnard grower and grocery chain are at the forefront of a move to ensure food safety.

July 22, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chemicals and the food supply are in the news again. The Clinton Administration issued an unprecedented warning about pesticide residues in children's diets last month. And the current Midwest flooding has health authorities there appearing on all the TV networks warning folks about contact with the floodwater because it contains agricultural chemicals--field runoff.

What is not being reported, but probably ought to be, are the positive steps by companies like an Oxnard grower and a major grocery chain to ensure food safety in our county.

They're making an effort to bring prominence to a fairly new idea--certification of produce that contains no detectable pesticide residues.

I'm not talking about organically grown, mind you, which means that from the seed to the store the fruits and veggies never see an artificial chemical. I'm talking instead about produce grown with minimal use of chemicals that--when tested at picking time and again at the grocery store loading dock--has no detectable pesticide residue.

Last month's Washington announcement about the nation's over-use of pesticides and the effect this has on children was unprecedented, not because it raised the alarm for the first time, but because it was a joint effort by the EPA, FDA, Department of Agriculture. All were supporting a report by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. I don't think those agencies have agreed on anything before.

That event was followed in California this month by a "call to action" issued by an equally diverse coalition called Pesticide Watch, which includes, among others, the California PTA, the American Medical Assn. and the Sierra Club. The only acronyms not mentioned in all this getting together, as far as I could see, were the FBI and the KGB. That may be a matter of time. More and more groups, it seems, want to get in on the clean-food movement. Even growers and grocers.

The most interesting aspect of the Pesticide Watch announcement was the location from which it was made: parking lots of grocery stores--simultaneously in San Diego, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

OK, you say, toxics activists do that all the time. But this was different; the organization was not urging citizens to boycott those stores but to shop at them.

And if you looked closely you could see that the produce being touted included avocados from Mission Produce, the big Oxnard shipper. The stores, by the way, were outlets of Raley's, a 120-store chain in Northern California, and Ralphs hereabouts.

These companies have subscribed to a pesticide-residue testing program run by a privately owned Oakland firm, Scientific Certification Systems. Those that "pass the test" are authorized to use the trademarked designation NutriClean on their wares.

This involves surprise, random and frequent chemical testing of produce in the packing process and again after it gets to the grocer.

Pesticide Watch's said in its announcement that organic food, as well as food certified to contain "no detected residues" are "options consumers should choose . . . By selecting these foods, consumers send a strong message of support to (companies that) reduce or eliminate pesticides."

I should say right here that because of federal standards many grocery chains and produce companies test their wares themselves.

Pesticide Watch, however, is worried that those standards don't go far enough. They claim that the legally permissible doses of chemicals are too high, especially for children, in whose growing bodies chemicals build up.

Companies such as Mission, Ralphs and Raley's have decided to adopt tougher standards voluntarily--and publicly certify that they've done so.

When I checked out a local Ralphs, they had not only Mission's avocados but carrots, cauliflowers, grapes, onions and yams from growers in California who had met the NutriClean standard. There was a big sign--which I'm told is up in all 160 stores in the chain--explaining what the "no detectable residues" designation means.

Mission Produce was the first avocado grower in the state to subject itself to this certification program five years ago. Ross Wileman, its sales manager, said that Vons, Hughes, Safeway and Albertson's carry Mission avocados but don't carry the designation.

There's some tension in the food industry about all this. According to Richard Wiles, an official of a Washington-based watchdog organization called the Environmental Working Group--which strongly supports both the NAS report and the NutriClean program--firms like Mission, Raley's and Ralphs are "renegades in the industry. (Other) supermarkets don't want to get into competition based on food safety."

But as consumers, it is the kind of competition we should foster.

* WHERE AND WHEN

For more information on produce with the "no detected residues" designation, call Pesticide Watch at (415) 543-2527.

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