Last week in this column, I wrote about Alar — a chemical applied to many apple orchards in this country to make apples grow uniformly and become redder and firmer. Alar has been found to be an animal carcinogen by several competent studies which means that it is quite likely to be a cancer-causing agent in humans. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed late last year to ban Alar, but a White House advisory panel blocked such a healthful mover Whereupon EPA placed the chemical under special review status which could take years to resolve.
Well, consumers should not have to wait any longer to protect themselves and their families. The strategy for action was clear. If enough people call supermarkets, apple juice processors, bakeries and other food processors about Alar, why would these sellers want to buy Alar apples from growers?
I decided to call the chief executive of the largest supermarket chain — the Safeway company in Oakland, California. Peter McGowan, Safeway’s boss, was embroiled in resisting a company takeover attempt by outsiders. He had not heard of the Alar controversy but kept an open mind. He suggested that while Safeway would consider my suggestion that they not buy Alar apples, it would be useful also to call the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) in Washington, D.C. which is the trade association for supermarkets.
Robert Aders heads FMI. Reached at home, he too had not been aware of the Alar issue, but agreed to assemble the information and call back as soon as possible. He did and indicated a few days later that FMI was considering an information memo to all their members, stopping short of urging a “no buy Alar” alert. I replied that stronger words of advice were necessary because time was of the essence. Growers start applying Alar, a systemic chemical which cannot be washed or peeled off, at the end of July for the autumn apple harvest. He said he would call back.
On July 15th, Felicia Del Campo, the public affairs manager for Safeway called to give me the following message: “We have advised our suppliers that we do not want to buy any Alar-treated apples for the new crop which starts coming to market in September.” She added that Safeway — a very large buyer — found the growers responsive.
At about the same time, the Washington State Apple Commission and the Michigan Apple Commission advised growers not to use Alar on their apple crop. The Commissions did not admit the danger of the chemical, in part to avoid any liability problems. But they make it clear that they wanted one less hazardous chemical in the food supply if apples and apple product sales were to be preserved.
The next few days could be decisive for the fall apple crop. If the Fill sends out its advisory and if more consumers continue to make their telephone calls to retailers and juice processors, Alar could be withdrawn by western, mid-western and the more difficult to persuade eastern apple growers before the annual chemical application. Alar-free apples could happen this fall, well before the 1988 prohibition date under a Massachusetts law — the first state to act.
As far as apples and apple products now in the stores — Caveat Emptor. Juices, stored apples and apple bakery products have a fifty-fifty chance of coming from Alar-treated apples of the past harvest. Apples which go directly from field to market are less likely to be Alar-treated than stored apples. It is a good idea to ask your retailer the obvious question about the presence or absence of Alar.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans die from cancer each year. Most cancer is environmentally, not genetically, caused. Smoking tobacco, bad diet, toxics in the workplace, marketplace and environment, such as pesticides in food and water, radiation, and certain medicine byproducts are factors in this epidemic. While the world waits for scientists to find the elusive cancer cure, let each of us by our consumer habits and citizen duties strive to prevent cancer by ridding our human environment of cancerous substances. We can start with cosmetic chemicals like Alar and keep going after many other known carcinogens in our food, air and water.