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Apples Safe, U.S. Says; to Return to L.A. School Menus : Agencies Reject Report on Alar

Times Staff Writer

The federal government on Thursday formally declared that it is safe for Americans to eat apples and strongly urged parents and school officials to restore the fruit to the diet of small children.

The declaration, issued by top officials of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture, officially discounted a report charging that apples treated with the chemical daminozide pose a risk to children’s health.

The report by the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council lacked “scientific validity,” the federal officials said. They pledged to work together to “reassure” the American public that apples are safe.

Senate Hearing

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The government statement, presented at a hastily called Senate hearing on the issue, came after scores of school districts pulled apples and apple products from lunch menus this week and stores reported declines in apple purchases.

FDA Commissioner Frank Young, who this week blocked imports of Chilean fruit after two cyanide-tainted grapes were found in a shipment, asserted that no similar action is warranted for apples treated with daminozide, which is marketed under the trade name Alar and is used to promote ripening in some apples.

“As you’ve seen, if there is a problem, FDA will squarely address it,” Young said. “If there is not a problem, FDA will squarely say that there is none.”

Some senators joined in decrying what Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) called the “hysteria and half-truths” spawned by the report, issued nearly three weeks ago by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. But other legislators and witnesses made clear that they share in the widespread concern about the substance.

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“What’s a mother to do?” asked actress Meryl Streep, testifying in her role as head of Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits.

Given the conflicting reports, she testified, consumers lose confidence in products and citizens lose confidence in government. “As parents,” she said ruefully, “we lose it completely.”

At the confrontational hearing, Streep and others urged that Alar’s manufacturer, Uniroyal Chemical Co., immediately pull the product off the market so that consumers can be sure that all apples are safe.

Company Refuses

But a company executive refused. “This is a truly remarkable product,” said Uniroyal Vice President James A. Wylie Jr., “and it is a safe product.”

Daminozide has been found to cause cancer in some animals. The EPA has said it plans to ban the chemical--which is used to promote ripening in an estimated 5% to 10% of the U.S. apple crop--by June, 1990, because of preliminary tests showing that it causes cancer in mice.

The agency has the power to ban the chemical outright, as environmentalists and some legislators have urged. But the government officials testified that the amount of the chemical present in apples is too small to pose a health risk and that no action is justified until a scientific study is completed.

If the “orderly scientific process” is not followed, Young warned, “we will be tossed in the wind as rudderless boats.”

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The hearing, by the Senate Labor Committee’s panel on children, brought together for the first time the major parties involved in the dispute over apples.

While the government agencies declared that Alar-treated apples pose no imminent threat, the Natural Resources Defense Council held to its position that apples, apple juice and other products containing the chemical pose an “unacceptable risk” to infants and small children, for whom apples are a dietary staple.

That view was strongly endorsed by Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.), who denounced what he called the “don’t worry, be happy” attitude of the federal agencies who have refused to regulate the substance.

Assails Agency

Sikorski, who has urged the EPA to ban Alar, charged that the agency “is turning American parents into the malevolent stepmother in Snow White, handing out enticingly red but fatal apples to our children.”

But Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a basket of apples and a jar of juice at his side, denounced such “panic,” warning: “We’re doing the nation a great disservice.”

The job of the Administration and Congress, agreed Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), is to exercise “crisis control.”

Apart from declarations by all sides that public health is a top priority, however, there was little agreement at the hearing.

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While the Administration officials testified in defense of the apple, President Bush told reporters that he now drinks carrot juice because “it doesn’t have any of that stuff they spray on the apples.”

Other witnesses voiced concern about the apple industry, which Sen. Steven D. Symms (R-Ida.) said is as “dead as a doornail now right across America.”

But when Sen. Brock Adams (D-Wash.) urged that Uniroyal halt sales of Alar so that apple growers could “market Alar-free products without the stigma of Alar attached,” company executive Wylie steadfastly declined.

“The problem is really not Alar,” he said. “The problem is an unreasonable fear that’s been put in the minds of the American public.”

The result, warned Streep, is that consumers do not know what to believe about the safety of apples and apple products.

“We’ve all seen the signs that say ‘Alar-free,”’ she said, “but none of them say: ‘We’ve got Alar; come on down!’ ”

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