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Concern Grows Over Pesticide Use on Produce

Times Staff Writer

Item: General Accounting Office analysts conclude that federal food inspectors lack the resources to test enough produce for pesticide residues to keep contaminated fruit and vegetables out of the nation’s supermarkets.

Item: Experts assembled by the National Research Council say the government “generally follows a conservative policy in estimating risk” but insist that pesticide residue limits for produce are too high and should be cut.

Item: United Farm Workers president Cesar Chavez fasts for five weeks to protest the use of pesticides on table grapes, alleging the chemicals not only hurt farm workers but also leave residues that endanger consumers.

Item: Scientists at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, caution that the legal standards for pesticide residues are “seriously flawed” and “were established without adequate health and safety data.”

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Top Consumer Worry

With items such as these crowding the news, it is no surprise that opinion polls say pesticide residue now tops the list of consumer food worries--beating out cholesterol and calories--and has made produce safety the latest battleground in the supermarket war for shoppers’ dollars.

Researchers, however, are less than unanimous about whether shoppers really need to worry about the dangers that may or may not lurk in the lettuce at their favorite produce department.

At issue are the trace amounts of pesticides that remain on, and sometimes in, produce. Some residues can be washed off or removed by peeling; the residues of some pesticides cannot be avoided.

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Real or imagined, the toxic issue broke into the big leagues of the grocery game this summer, when Ralphs Grocery Co. in Los Angeles--the industry leader in the nation’s most competitive city--announced that it had lined up a pioneering Oakland firm to certify that the chain’s produce is “pesticide free.”

The company Ralphs picked to certify its produce, NutriClean Inc., sprang out of Northern California’s organic produce industry and practically invented the idea of independent testing for pesticide residues. Now, inspired by the signing of Ralphs, founder Stanley P. Rhodes is going nationwide, aggressively selling his small outfit with the big idea of becoming “the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for clean food.”

It is a heady strategy for a company operating out of cramped quarters over a vegetable stand in Oakland’s run-down but bustling produce market, but Rhodes is optimistic. Referring to a food industry poll showing that 75% of consumers worry about residue on their produce, he believes the time is right for his service.

‘Satisfying Demand’

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“We didn’t create that 75%,” he said during a tour of one of the contract laboratories that actually perform the residue analyses for NutriClean. “All we’re doing is satisfying a demand, which is the American way.”

Rhodes does caution: “We’re not saying certified food is safer. We’re just saying it reduces your risk” of exposure to pesticide residues.

Several independent scientists, however, have pointed out that the independent testing industry sprouted in California, which uses one of the strictest government pesticide residue testing programs in the United States.

“It (certifying produce to exceed government standards) looks like a waste of people’s money,” said Wendell Kilgore, UC Davis professor of environmental toxicology and a former chairman of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Scientific Advisory Panel. “But if it makes people feel more comfortable, I’m not against it.”

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That opinion is shared by others in the field, notably Bruce N. Ames at UC Berkeley. He contends that the cancer-causing potential of pesticide residues is “completely overshadowed” by “natural pesticides” built into many foods “in amounts at least 10,000 times greater than residues of man-made pesticides.”

Test advocates counter that pesticide residues, unlike natural carcinogens, are a cancer risk that is easily avoided by using pesticides more judiciously. They also argue that pesticide residues are an involuntary risk that most consumers probably would not take if given a choice--and testing gives them a choice.

“Plus there’s the scientific argument that there is no ‘safe’ level of any carcinogen and repeated exposure in the long run usually equals cancer,” said Jennifer Curtis, research associate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private watchdog group that has closely studied the pesticide residue issue.

Question Over Standards

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There is, however, more to the battle over pesticide residues than consumer health. Richard Weil, who coordinated the National Research Council study that criticizes current government residue standards as too high, said residues are a politically savvy way to prompt a thorough reexamination of pesticide use in general in America.

“Residues are just one problem with pesticides--and probably not the most important one,” he said. “It is just the one people react to. If you want to do something about ground water contamination (a big problem in California) or wildlife (poisonings) or farm worker safety, then you have to work on pesticide residues.”

He said that activists hope to motivate middle-class consumers to use their economic and political power to force farmers to cut their use of agricultural chemicals and thus protect farm workers’ health and ease other alleged negative side effects of pesticide use.

Indeed, the residue controversy heated up recently with union leader Chavez’s lengthy fast in support of a boycott of table grapes. The UFW was seeking consumer support for its contention that chemicals sprayed on grapes endanger farm workers--a charge the industry has vigorously denied, most recently last week in full-page advertisements in The Times and other big California newspapers.

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Ironically, the UFW last month chose to illustrate its point about residues by picketing a Ralphs supermarket--a market that already had hired NutriClean to make sure its grapes and other produce were “residue free.”

Rhodes and NutriClean spokeswoman Linda Brown said the company’s “residue-free” program has two components--dock screening and certification. Together they constitute a unique service, health and supermarket specialists said.

More Sampling

Dock screening is similar to government residue testing programs, except it takes more random samples more often and looks for a much lower residue level. The samples are collected on supermarket receiving docks by NutriClean workers and sent out to one of several independent laboratories, which test them for a list of pesticides supplied by NutriClean.

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Residue histories are compiled on various growers, and those whose residues are consistently below 0.05 parts per billion (ppb) are recommended for repeat orders. Grower histories are shared among all of NutriClean’s customers, which in addition to Ralphs include Raley’s Superstores in Sacramento, Farm Fresh in Virginia, Farmer Jack in Michigan and Petrini’s in San Francisco.

There are potential flaws in dock screening. One is that testing takes two or three days, so in the interest of freshness, produce is put out for sale before the results are in. Another is that the randomly chosen samples may not include the box with the worst residue. A third is that tests look only for a small number of pesticides and may not detect a chemical used improperly on a crop for which it is not registered.

NutriClean’s “certification” program is intended to close those loopholes and foster pesticide alternatives. Growers in this program pay NutriClean a fee and sign a contract in which they disclose in advance which pesticides they plan to use and in what amounts. NutriClean then inspects the growing process from bare ground to packing shed to loading dock, analyzing samples as desired.

Any added costs and labor imposed by this system should be made up by lower pesticide costs and higher prices, Rhodes said. Last week, for example, grapes certified by NutriClean sold for 59 cents a pound at Ralphs, while uncertified grapes were only 39 cents a pound at Vons.

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The promise is to identify fresh produce containing “no detected pesticide residue.” Despite what that implies, NutriClean does not necessarily mean the produce was grown without pesticides or that it is entirely free of residues. Rather, any residue it might contain poses a “negligible” cancer risk.

Small Amounts Detectable

Modern equipment can detect some substances in profoundly small quantities, down to parts per quadrillion. NutriClean tests down to 0.05 parts per billion in its pesticide screens. Linda Brown said residue below that level will cause fewer than one tumor in a population of 1 million people during a 70-year life span--the regulatory definition of “negligible risk.” In contrast, existing federal regulations allow some residues at levels that may cause one tumor per 10,000 to 100,000 people.

The Delaney Clause of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1954 outlaws food additives shown to “induce cancer.” But the Environmental Protection Agency has put only a few pesticides to that test and in any case does not consider pesticide residue an “additive” to fresh fruit or vegetables.

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However, Food and Drug Administration inspections indicate that federal standards are exceeded less than 1% of the time; half of the fruit and two-thirds of the vegetables checked last year showed no residue at all. The controversy springs from the fruit and vegetables that have detectable residue under the limit.

“We do not see any serious health concerns emanating from the current uses of pesticides,” said Chris Lecos of the FDA.

NutriClean clients say they do not claim the federal standards are unsafe--merely that more research is needed. “In the meantime,” Ralphs said in an ad last July that summarized the thinking of NutriClean clients, “Ralphs prefers to be on the side of safety.”

But NutriClean can mean more than safety to a supermarket. If enough people are worried about pesticide residues, produce free of residues can attract new shoppers--and ring up more sales. Charles Collings, president of Raley’s Food Stores, said produce advertised as organic or pesticide free usually sells out quickly, although Ralphs spokesman Gene Brown said his stores have not noticed a significant change.

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“I don’t think any consideration was given to market share” when starting the program, said Brown. “We saw this was something consumers were interested in and concerned about and we felt that it was our job to try to address that. If market share comes out of that, fine. But that was not our goal.”

Industry Response

Other stores, however, appear concerned over the power of pure produce. For example, Bel Air Markets in Sacramento assured customers in one recent ad that its produce is “safe and clean” and even offered to let customers visit the “laboratory that tests our fresh produce.” The market neglected to note that the laboratory belongs to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

Industry also is responding to pesticide residue concerns. For example, the California Fresh Market Tomato Advisory Board in Dinuba has asked growers and packers to keep records of the chemicals they use. The board wants the data to counter claims by the National Research Council and others that tomatoes often have the highest residues of any fruit.

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The FDA also is taking action. It has proposed that the food industry itself take a more active role in monitoring for trace pesticide residues and suggested that the industry share the results with the FDA to improve the agency’s understaffed regulatory program.

This flood of concern about residues has led to some excesses.

NutriClean, for example, was chastised by the California Department of Food and Agriculture for inaccurately reporting that a shipment of fresh sweet corn exceeded state residue standards. State regulators later discovered that NutriClean mistakenly tested corn husks as well as the corn itself for residue.

Raley’s had a problem with an ad when the FDA last April criticized the chain for falsely claiming that a NutriClean screening of sulfite residue in grapes is “the first FDA certification program ever.” The FDA said in a letter to Raley’s that this is “false and misleading in several respects.” The ads have stopped.

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NutriClean itself has been asked to stop referring to its relationship with the University of Florida, one of the country’s leading centers of tandem mass spectrometry, a sophisticated materials analysis technology. Company documents refer to “work currently under way” with the university to apply that process to pesticide residue analysis.

Donation Promise

Rick Yost, an associate professor of chemistry, said the school did do some research for NutriClean after the company promised a $5,000 donation. He added that the work was completed, but only about a third of the donation has arrived, so the university has ended the relationship.

“It is bothersome that they are much quicker to use our name than they are to send the money they owe us,” he said.

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Linda Brown said the missing money is the result of a misunderstanding over whether the donation would be paid in a lump sum or over time.

In 1985, a year after it was launched, NutriClean contracted to buy its own mass spectrometer. Alameda County civil court records show the firm eventually lost a $34,000 down payment on the equipment when Rhodes was unable to attract investor interest in the process.

At the time, Rhodes, a former health food store manager with a doctorate in chemistry from Purdue, was raising money for NutriClean by laboring as produce buyer for Consumer’s Cooperative of Berkeley, a modest chain of five customer-owned supermarkets in the Bay Area.

As a chemist and amateur nutritionist, he said he became interested in food safety and government oversight of claims made about the quality and safety of produce. His interest blossomed in the late 1970s, when California passed laws setting standards for organic farming.

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Rhodes said he believes such laws inevitably are the product of compromises, so he developed NutriClean for people unwilling to compromise.

“The whole question is not whether the food is legal,” he said, “it is a question of whether the food is clean, like they say it is.”


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