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California Tops List in Environmental Protection

Times Staff Writer

California exceeds all other states in environmental protection programs, including such efforts as monitoring food and water supplies for harmful compounds, according to a recent study by two Washington-based consumer groups.

The report, titled “State of the States,” took into account regulatory activity in five different areas: food safety, drinking water, solid waste recycling, forest management and urban growth/environment.

California received 42 points out of a possible perfect score of 50. The state was also second in the nation for its food safety record, following only Iowa.

The groups responsible for the review, which was released last week, are Renew America and Public Voice for Food and Health Policy. This is the first time that local programs designed to monitor the food supply were evaluated as part of the report’s overall rating system.

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“You can’t separate food safety from environmental safety. . . . These two are closely aligned,” said Public Voice’s Eileen Kugler. “For instance, the pesticides used on crops can contaminate the ground water supplies and the air. And chemicals dumped into waterways leads to the contamination of fish.”

The authors considered several factors in evaluating the various food safety efforts across the country. They were: the effectiveness of a state’s pesticide residue testing; existence of research on reducing chemical usage in agriculture; regulation of the meat, poultry and seafood industries; local standards on food additives/colors and environmental contaminant monitoring.

“States can play an important role in filling gaps in monitoring . . . the food supply and enforc(ing) food safety requirements, especially given the limitations of the federal (government’s) presence,” the report stated.

Although California was faulted for failing to meet federal standards for its shellfish harvest, it was otherwise “praised” for an extensive program to monitor chemical contaminants in food.

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The high food safety ranking is noteworthy considering that the state also leads the nation in farm production, with an agricultural sector generating about $14 billion annually.

California was named as one of only five states that tests food for illegal levels of pesticides, industrial chemicals, heavy metals, drugs and aflatoxin, a carcinogenic mold.

The state also leads the nation in terms of money spent on integrated pest management research: a chemical-free approach to farming that uses one type of insect to prey on an entirely different species that may harm crops. Such funding was lauded by the study because it supports exploration for alternatives to today’s “high-cost, chemical-intensive, energy-intensive, water-intensive agriculture.”

Further, California was commended for spending more--$6.4 million--on biological controls than any other.

The report stated that this type of program is crucial to any strategy to reduce dependence on pesticides. Among the methods included in this area are those employed by organic farmers such as the use of natural, rather than chemical, fertilizers.

The top 10 states in overall environmental programs, listed in descending order, are California, Oregon, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Jersey, Florida, Maryland and Connecticut.

In terms of food safety programs, the leading states are Iowa, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas.

“There are some states that are definitely doing progressive things and, often, these are areas where the federal government has backed off,” said Kugler. “It’s clear we need stronger national guidance and stronger national food safety standards.”

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Those states that received the lowest food safety ratings are Nevada, Indiana, West Virginia, Wyoming, Utah and Louisiana.

Despite California’s performance in the review, the overall results contradict local consumer groups’ charges that the state’s pesticide monitoring program for produce is inadequate.

Perceptions of Poultry--Eight percent of those surveyed in a recent public opinion poll said that they are eating less chicken because of potential salmonella contamination of the birds. The figure also includes those who have stopped eating chicken altogether as a result of food safety concerns.

An account of the poll appeared in Nutrition Week, a Washington-based newsletter published by the Community Nutrition Institue.

The survey, conducted by two University of Florida economists, randomly queried a total of 506 consumers in Spokane, Wash., Orlando, Fla., Des Moines, Iowa, and Tucson, Ariz. The cities were selected because they are often used by food corporations as new product test markets. This association, according to Nutrition Week, gives the results a “special validity.”

The poll also found that 4% of those questioned claim to have become ill as a result of eating contaminated chicken. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 5%.

While 92% of the respondents made no changes in poultry consumption, the number of those saying they adjusted eating habits was considered surprising.

“The results support what we have been hearing . . . and that is the wholesale market price for poultry dropped 20 to 25 cents a pound over a 20-month period,” said Rod Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute. “The poll shows that while people will continue to consume poultry, they will eat less of it if they think there is a problem.”

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Federal researchers have estimated that as much as 40% of the United States chicken flock may be contaminated with salmonella. The bacteria can cause nausea, diarrhea, fever and abdominal pains. The infection can be severe for some groups, including infants, the elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems such as cancer and AIDS patients.

In addition to gauging the public’s overall perceptions of chicken, the poll also queried respondents on their views of several proposals aimed at addressing poultry contamination. Namely, it looked at what people are willing to pay for poultry and the effect various food safety options may have on prices.

One of the frequently discussed processing options involves an increased use of chemicals, such as bleach, to kill bacteria that my be present on the birds. A second method employs irradiation that destroys harmful organisms, such as salmonella, by exposing the food to gamma rays.

According to the poll, consumers would purchase chicken treated with bleach only if its price was reduced from current levels by about 4.5 cents a pound.

The reductions would have to be 11.7 cents per pound before consumers would consider buying irradiated chicken.

Leonard said that the data provides a best-case scenario for the poultry industry and that many consumers may ultimately reject both methods.

“Under those conditions, people will feel uneasy and unsure about (eating chicken),” he said. "(The methods) would be looked at in a negative fashion.”

Emphasizing Food Safety--A supermarket industry trade group is calling for a more aggressive federal posture on pesticide regulation.

The Food Marketing Institute, in a policy statement, said that the action is needed to address growing public concerns about farm chemicals.

The Washington-based organization is also proposing that the Bush Administration establish a task force to study food safety matters in hopes of centralizing government oversight in a single agency.

FMI was critical of the present situation where three agencies--U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency--are each responsible for some aspect of food safety.

The group, which represents more than 1,600 retailers and wholesalers, also recommended:

--Establishing a single federal agency for food safety thus combining responsibilities that now fall to three different departments.

--Banning those chemicals determined to be unsafe by government testing.

--Reducing the amount of pesticides used on crops as well as labeling/disclosing each of the chemicals used on a particular commodity.

--Promoting organic farming, integrated pest management and other alternative farming methods.

--Intensify inspections for unsafe pesticide residues in both domestic and imported foods.

--Expedite studies on the health risk of pesticides currently in use. The research should also examine the threats to infants and children from the chemicals.


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