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Apples Safe, U.S. Says; to Return to L.A. School Menus : ‘Absolutely’ OK, District Aide Says

Times Education Writer

Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Leonard Britton on Thursday ordered apples and some related products back into school cafeterias after testing by outside laboratories that showed the food items free of the chemical daminozide.

Fresh whole apples, apple juice, apple raisin bars and apple-cherry juice Popsicles could reappear on the menu as soon as Monday, officials said.

Other apple products, including applesauce and canned apple slices, are being withheld pending test results expected early next week.

“We’re delighted to report that apples will be back in school and that they are absolutely safe,” district spokeswoman Diana Munatones said Thursday.

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Other local districts said they were waiting for word from their superintendents or boards of education before lifting bans on the fruit.

Federal Action

The Los Angeles district’s announcement coincided with declarations by federal and state agencies that apples are safe to eat. Officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture on Thursday officially discounted a report that apples treated with the chemical daminozide pose a health risk, and they urged parents and schools to return the fruit to children’s diets.

The state Department of Food and Agriculture also announced Thursday that it found no traces of Alar, the brand name under which daminozide is sold, or UDMH, a compound into which daminozide breaks down, in apple samples taken from a state Department of Education warehouse in Pomona this week.

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The Red Delicious apples sampled were grown in Oregon and “passed with flying colors,” state Department of Food and Agriculture spokeswoman Veda Federighi said.

The department is also testing random samples of apples purchased at wholesale markets and plans to release those results on Monday.

State Health Services Director Kenneth W. Kizer said he will release his agency’s test results today showing that apple products do not pose a health risk.

Beth Louargand, the Los Angeles school district’s deputy business services administrator, said the district does not regret its weeklong apple ban, which led scores of districts throughout the state to take apples and related products off their menus, and panicked apple growers, who said they face millions of dollars in lost sales.

“Our first concern is to be absolutely sure that children are safe,” Louargand said. “We will always be cautious.”

Lillie Marsalis, director of Food Services for the Lynwood Unified School District, said Thursday: “I’m still waiting to hear from my authority, the assistant superintendent of business and the Board of Education, to see if they will go along with it.”

One Official’s Reaction

Said Terry Ray, food services director for the South Whittier School District: “I’m so glad they finally made that statement. I will contact my assistant superintendent about this, and after Easter vacation (next week) we’ll probably resume (serving) apples again.”

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Administrators in the Los Angeles district made the decision on March 9 to remove apples and apple products from cafeterias and school vending machines. They said they were unaware that New York City schools, acting after an official there read about a government report on daminozide, already had banned the fruit from lunch lines.

The decision by the nation’s two largest school districts, which together serve 18 million apples a year, set in motion a massive chain reaction, with districts from Sacramento to Miami taking apples off school menus until federal and state authorities could definitively quash their fears.

Apparently, the decision to banish the popular fruit was made in many school districts, including Los Angeles, without a thorough review of scientific data or consultation with outside experts.

“It appears to me,” Kizer said Thursday, “that they mostly shot from the hip without thinking what the downside, long-term consequences would be. . . . A thoughtful analysis never occurred.”

Los Angeles officials defended their action, arguing that it was safer to “err on the side of caution” and eliminate apples until tests could be performed by an independent laboratory. “It was not a panic decision,” said David Koch, administrator of the district’s business services division, who gave final approval to ban the fruit.

Noting that on previous occasions the district had dropped other fruits--watermelons temporarily and grapes permanently--from the school menu without the public paying much attention, Koch professed surprise at the stir over the apple ban.

“We would have preferred to have quietly removed these products from menus until such time as they are proven safe, but that wasn’t what transpired,” he added wryly.

The district’s decision to ban apples was set in motion three weeks ago when its chief nutritionist, Anita King, saw a CBS-TV “60 Minutes” segment that reported on the potentially carcinogenic effects of daminozide. Daminozide, marketed under the trade name Alar, is used on some apple crops.

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Wanted More Facts

A registered dietitian who has a master’s degree in foods and nutrition, King said the program did not alarm her. But after viewing it, “What I was interested in doing was finding out more about it. I just felt it was something that had been on ’60 Minutes’ and (so) it merited research on our part. . . . The ’60 Minutes’ program (got) us looking seriously” at the effects of apples treated with Alar, she said.

The television segment focused on the potential dangers to infants and young children of ingesting apples or food products made from apples that were sprayed with Alar. It also discussed the EPA’s hesitancy to ban the chemical.

King and other members of the district’s nutrition staff spent the next several days reviewing reports from a variety of sources, such as the EPA and the International Apple Institute, about the effects of Alar.

By March 9, King said, she decided she knew enough to call Louargand to propose putting a hold on apples and apple products “until we could get more facts.”

“We discussed whether just to do testing or to do testing and pull apples from the menus for a short period of time,” said Louargand, formerly the food services director who now helps oversee the business division. “Then Dave Koch and I talked. We decided it would be more prudent and wise to pull them from the menu. Then we put the word out (to cafeteria managers) not to serve apples or apple products until we let them know it’s OK.

“It was not really a difficult decision,” Louargand added. “If we were making a decision to pull apples permanently, we would have agonized over it. This was a decision to pull apples for a very short period of time.”

No Expert Consultation

Koch said the staff made no calls to outside experts before making the decision. Nor were district lawyers consulted, he said, because the decision was not motivated by fear of lawsuits from parents.

California districts participating in the snowballing apple boycott came under fire this week from the state’s top health and education officials.

“I’m surprised the schools didn’t seek more input,” said Kizer, the Health Services director. In the case of Los Angeles, he added, “no contact was made with the local health department . . . and no one called us about what to do about this. They didn’t ask, ‘Should we do this (ban apples) today or wait a couple of weeks.’ I would have liked to have seen them make a decision as a result of thoughtful analysis. . . .”

State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who had ordered state testing of fresh apples and apple products immediately after the “60 Minutes” program aired, said Thursday: “Nobody asked our advice on this. . . . Districts should have picked up the phone and called us. Apples are healthy. And the apple industry is important. You don’t want to put them out of business if they’re doing a good thing.”

Times researcher Tracy Thomas contributed to this article.


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