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Produce Washes: Can Chemicals Remove Chemicals?

Times Staff Writer

Entrepreneurs hope to capitalize on consumer pesticide concerns with the introduction of household cleansers designed to remove chemical residues that may be present on fruit and vegetables.

There are several such liquid formulations, or washes, being offered to supermarket chains for placement in store produce sections. But only in the past week, or so, have local retailers seriously considered selling the products.

The change of heart was prompted by the uproar over farm chemicals which began in earnest a month ago with the release of a report on the health threat posed to children from pesticide residue in foods.

However, there are limits to--and questions about--the cleansers’ effectiveness.

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In particular, the washes only remove those pesticides which remain on the surface of a produce item. Other chemical residues, or those classified as systemic, remain unchanged after repeated washing because they enter the inner cell structure of fruit and vegetables.

There are no hard figures on exactly how many agricultural chemicals are, in fact, systemic.

Pesticide Alert (Sierra Club Books: $15.95), a highly critical survey of the 127 most commonly used farm compounds on produce, reported that less than half of all pesticides can be removed by washing alone.

In fact, 39.3% of these chemicals are thought to remain on the surface, another 18.2% are systemic and the invasive properties of 42.5% have not been fully ascertained, according to the book.

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There is also no way of knowing which foods may contain residues. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s pesticide monitoring program, 57% of the fruit and vegetables tested contained no chemical traces. Thirty-nine percent contained legal levels of farm compounds, 3% were considered technical violations, or where a pesticide was used on the wrong crop, and 1% were classified as illegal residues, the agency reported.

Some brands of washes being marketed employ surfactants, or a class of chemicals which, in combination with water, act to remove wax, dirt and pesticides residues without penetrating the fruit or vegetable flesh. Surfactants can take many forms including something as simple as a commercially available detergent.

The FDA has yet to formally review any of the produce washes now on the market. If the products were found to leave their own residue on foods, after the cleansing’s completion, then federal regulations would require FDA approval of the process.

Such action would be necessary because any wash-related compound remaining on foods can be ingested. As such, they would be considered an additive and thus require a lengthly FDA review process.

“If these products are ever shown to leave a residue on foods, then the Environmental Protection Agency and the FDA would pay heed,” said Emil Corwin, an FDA spokesman.

Two Los Angeles-area manufacturers claim that their washes, when properly applied, are residue-free and comply with federal regulations.

One of these is Pure Sense which is promoted as a non-toxic, tasteless and odorless liquid sold in 16-ounce bottles.

“Ours is a solution that removes substances that are not readily removed by water alone,” said Steven Abo, president of Pure Sense, Inc., and the product’s formulator.

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The wash, he says, is effective in removing much of the wax found on apples, cucumbers and other items. It is as effective against those pesticides, fungicides and bacteria that may be present on peel or skin.

“Pure Sense will help lower the chemical levels on food,” he said. “But we can’t make your food into the quality that you’d find in the Garden of Eden. But we can improve it substantially, effectively and safely.”

Abo said that he began developing Pure Sense about nine months ago, or well before pesticide concerns became acute.

“I’m not saying that food is horrible and that there are all these chemicals on it . . . nor am I suggesting that people stop buying produce,” he said. “But they should use a product like mine, or someone else’s product with similar capabilities.”

Pure Sense, Abo said, can also be used to cleanse food other the produce. He recommends it for treating meat, fish and wooden cutting boards.

Sales Jump in Recent Months

Although he would not reveal exact figures, Abo said that sales of Pure Sense have gone up “tremendously” since its introduction in January. The increased demand has forced his company to vacate its current apartment-sized facility for one measuring 15,000 square feet.

And Pure Sense will get even greater exposure in the coming days as the Vons Companies begins selling the cleanser in its more than 360 stores.

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Richard G. Spezzano, Vons vice president for produce, said that he has reviewed a half dozen washes in the past two years.

“Every time I’ve been sent a sample, we would have our quality control laboratory test it. And if it didn’t meet our standards then we rejected it,” he said.

A number of the produce washes were found deficient.

“One product said it was made with all natural ingredients and we found out (through testing) that it wasn’t. Another said it would do certain things and it didn’t do any. And one was only water with detergent that was lightly scented,” he said.

In a laboratory review of Pure Sense, Spezzano said that the wash performed as advertised.

“It doesn’t remove all waxes and topical pesticides, but it does remove quite a bit,” he said. “The others made claims that they couldn’t meet.”

A 16-ounce container of Pure Sense will sell for less than $2 and the product is expected to be available in most Vons stores this week.

Another chain, Ralphs Grocery Co., is currently reviewing two different produce washes for possible sale in its stores. A private laboratory is testing the products to determine their safety and effectiveness.

“If you’re using one chemical to take off another one then I don’t know whether there is any advantage to that,” said Kerry Hodges, Ralphs vice president for produce.

Another cleanser manufacturer claims that supermarket chains are reluctant to offer any such product regardless of how well it works.

Grocery Chains Hesitate

Some stores fear that if they stock a produce wash then its presence alone will insinuate that their fruit and vegetables have pesticides, or are contaminated more than the competition’s, said Bill Glickman, president of Consumer Health Research, Inc., of North Hollywood.

Glickman’s firm manufactures Fruit & Vegetable Wash, which was in development for about two years.

“None of the supermarkets have rejected our product because it didn’t work,” he said. “The markets are real thorough and have contacted the independent labs that did our testing and they’ve looked at how the wash removes wax. They’ve praised us . . . But it doesn’t break the barrier down.”

Fruit & Vegetable Wash was formulated by D.C. Atkins and Son, Inc., an independent consulting firm based in Los Alamitos. The company took great care to ensure that none of the wash remained on produce once it was treated.

“We chose materials which are removed from the fruit and vegetables in the subsequent water rinsing,” said Don C. Atkins Jr., who developed the wash. “Even so, you have to select ones which, if they were to remain on the fruit, would not cause any deleterious effects to the produce or to the individual who ingests them.”

Through mail order, Fruit & Vegetable Wash sells for $11.85 per 16-ounce container including postage and handling. The use of top grade materials and the extra expense of mail-order processing is responsible for the high price, according to company officials.

Variations in Price

However, the product is also being sold in several stores in New England, where it retails at $3 per eight-ounce bottle.

The IGA Foodliner supermarket in Providence, Rhode Island, has had the wash for about three months. Sales were brisk from the start, but received a “tremendous bang” in recent weeks as apples were removed from school menus and Chilean produce was recalled, said Raymond T. Laurans, the market’s owner.

“It’s a choice of taking the produce as it is with the pesticides on it or buying the wash and getting rid of some of these chemicals,” said Laurans in describing the product’s popular appeal.

The presence of cleansers such as Pure Sense and Fruit & Vegetable Wash has generated both interest and confusion, said one California official.

“Consumers have called us about these products and asked questions,” said James W. Wells, a special assistant in the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture’s pest management division.

Wells said his agency has not reviewed the washes and, therefore, can not offer any guidance on their effectiveness.

Oddly enough, surfactants are also used to more accurately disperse pesticides, he said.

As for washing produce with something stronger than water, Wells said that the state has always recommended that fruit and vegetables be cleansed in a mixture of mild detergent and water. The process is advisable regardless of potential pesticide residues.

“Yes, people should wash their fruit and vegetables,” he said. “Produce gets handled and you don’t know where its been. Dirt is dirt.”

Spezzano also said that his company has always encouraged customers to wash produce. However, he never envisioned a time when produce counters would be selling specially formulated cleansers to rid fruit and vegetables of pesticides.

“We want to offer people what they want,” he said. “And there is a demand on this.”


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