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Apples Safe, U.S. Says; Bans Likely to Continue in O.C. : L.A. Schools Will End Prohibition

Times Staff Writers

Many Orange County schools are expected to continue to ban apples and related products from school cafeterias despite a decision Thursday by the Los Angeles Unified School District to resume serving them at district schools.

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

Britton’s decision appeared to have little, if any, impact on Orange County schools, where 23 of 28 school districts had imposed the ban on fresh apples and other apple products.

“We intend to wait a little while longer before we start serving apples again,” said Jan Monforte, food services director for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

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Since the apple scare began, Monforte said, she, like other food service directors in Orange County, has been in daily contact with her district’s food suppliers, who have told her they have begun testing for any presence of daminozide.

In fact, most districts said they have stopped serving fresh apples and apple products until they receive official word from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state Depatment of Education that doing so will not pose a health risk to children.

Monforte said Newport-Mesa does not plan to resume serving apples or apple products until she has proof that the testing results were negative and has the “documents in hand.”

School board members said the apple scare occurred so fast this week that responsibility for the decision to impose a ban and consequently to resume serving apples has remained with district staffs.

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“Frankly, I don’t think we as board members really have as much information concerning the health issues as our food services people who are in constant touch with (state) health officials,” said Judith Franco, a trustee for Newport-Mesa.

In Los Angeles, 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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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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, which is used on some apple crops.

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.

Times researcher Tracy Thomas contributed to this article.


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