Alar and Bad Apples

If you buy fresh apples, apple juice, apple sauce or other apple products rid apples, this campaign is for you. With relatively slight effort, you can help rid apples of a cosmetic applied to this fruit that has been shown to cause cancer in animals and therefore most probably in humans as well. The fall apple harvest is preceded by application of this chemical — whose trade name is Alar — in the orchards. Action now can free this nutritious fruit of that taint by the autumn.
First some background. Alar is sold by Uniroyal, Inc., the tire company. For more than two decades, Alar-treated apples became redder, firmer and ripen about the same time for picking. Alar also breaks down to unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) which scientific studies have concluded is a cancer-causing substance. The first of these reports came out in 1978 from the Eppley Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical School. Uniroyal, of course, denies that Alar — worth $20 million in annual sales — is harmful.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally proposed last year that Alar be banned. But a White House advisory panel thought otherwise. Bending to the political reality, EPA placed Alar under “special review” which could take three or more years to conclude.

The federal agency did inform the public about how widely Alar is used. This chemical is applied to 56% of Stayman apples, 55% of McIntosh apples, 43% of Golden Delicious, 39% of Red Delicious, 19% of Jonathan apples and 1% of the Rome apples.

Children are the most exposed group since they eat larger quantities of Alar-contaminated foods such as apple juice and apple sauce. EPA’s own studies show that children under 12 years of age and infants under one year old are exposed to two and seven times respectively as much Mar as the total population average. Also many farm workers are exposed to this chemical in the orchards.

While EPA fiddles, some states are beginning to act. Massachusetts has moved to prohibit the presence of Alar in apple products by 1988. New York, California and Maine have indicated they are considering restrictions. New York and Maine have just joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council in a legal petition to EPA to immediately prohibit growers from spraying Alar on apples and peanuts.

Here is where you can be part of a consumer enforcement program. Supermarkets, apple juice processors, baby food manufacturers and bakeries want to sell you apples and apple products. They don’t care whether these products contain Mar or not — until, that is, you show them you care. Whether by telephone or by letter ask these sellers whether they are using Alar -treated apples or not. Firmly request a reply in writing.

Now these processors and sellers want to keep your patronage. So they will be ever more inclined to tell apple growers that they will only buy non-Alar apples. The growers want to keep their sales, so they will stop using Alar because apple markets can shrink very quickly.

There are other ways to make your point. Some airlines serve only apple juice and no other fruit juices. U.S. Air is the biggest of these firms. Put the question to that airline and other airlines who offer this juice. Baby food manufacturers are already feeling heat from consumers and do not want any more Alar-treated apples, it is said. Make them prove that intent in a letter to you. Mott’s apple products are supposed to be free of Alar this fall. Same point: have them put it in writing and explain how they are testing the apples they do buy to make sure they are Alar-free.

An important reason why this consumer protection drive can work is that people can easily switch to another fruit and the market for apples can shrink quickly. Americans are paying a big price for cosmetic chemicals in their food. The price is more cancer.

Winning the battle against Alar can open up other opportunities for buyers to use scientific information to create a “buyer’s market” where the consumer’s interest is paramount. So, why not pick up the phone or your pen and send the Safeways, the A & Ps and others the message before those fall apples start coming to market.

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