Apples in two Los Angeles County supermarkets were found in independent tests to contain residues of Alar, a potentially hazardous chemical that the stores’ suppliers had claimed was no longer used.
The tests, conducted for The Times by a private San Francisco laboratory, found traces of Alar on apples sold at a Hughes market in Monterey Park and a Lucky store in Bell. Officers of both stores said their growers had pledged in letters not to use the chemical. Lucky was apparently confident enough of the claim to post it on signs on produce shelves.
The test results demonstrate that supermarkets, increasingly sensitive to consumer concerns about pesticides and chemicals, may not be able to guarantee the purity of their produce without independent laboratory verification. Some environmentalists are demanding an immediate ban on Alar.
In response to the results, a spokeswoman for Lucky said the chain pulled the apples from the market where The Times purchased them last week and will test them to verify The Times’ findings. In the meantime, she said, Lucky’s no-Alar signs will probably be revised.
Hughes, concerned by the findings, began testing apples in its warehouse Wednesday and found Alar residues on three different brands of red apples. A Hughes vice president ordered its stores to pull those brands from the shelves late Wednesday afternoon and announced that the chain will now test apples in its warehouse on a regular basis.
No Alar residue was detected in samples from two other stores, a Vons in La Canada and a Ralphs in South Pasadena. These two supermarket chains verify their growers’ claims of Alar-free fruit with independent laboratory testing.
The amounts detected in The Times’ tests were substantially below the allowable limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. An EPA official said Alar residues at or below the allowable amount--set before the chemical was linked to cancer--could cause health problems over a lifetime of consumption but not in the short run. The agency next year is expected to ban the chemical, which is used to improve the appearance and extend the shelf life mainly of red apples.
“The finding of Alar in so-called Alar-free apples demonstrates why we need the EPA to take this chemical off the market once and for all,” said Lawrie Mott, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that released a controversial study earlier this month about the chemical’s effects on children.
Private Lab Hired
The Times last week purchased eight to 10 apples of each red and yellow variety at the four stores and hired Anresco Inc., a private San Francisco laboratory, to test them for residues of Alar, the trade name for the chemical daminozide. The laboratory used a testing method recognized by the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration.
Of 23 samples tested, five had detectable levels. The EPA’s allowable limit for the residue is 20 parts per million. The EPA does not, however, say that apples containing that amount or less are safe.
“We aren’t saying there is any level that is absolutely without risk,” said EPA spokesman Alber Heier. “However, we think the risk is small.”
Agency officials say the average Alar residue detected on apples is one part per million--1/20th of the limit. For every 100,000 people who eat apples containing that average amount, there will be about 4.5 additional cancer cases over the lifetime of those people, according to the EPA’s calculations.
Range of Findings
The amounts found in The Times’ tests ranged from .97 ppm to 9 ppm. Anne Lindsay, director of pesticide registration for the EPA, said any residue above 1 ppm probably results from current use of Alar. Smaller amounts may be found on apples one or more years after the grower has stopped using the chemical because it persists in the soil and root system of the tree.
At Hughes, a sample of McIntoshes was found to have residue of 9 ppm. A sample of large red Delicious apples had a detectable level of .97 ppm and “fancy” red Delicious had a level of 3.7 ppm.
At Lucky, a large red Delicious sample showed 1.8 ppm and a regular red Delicious sample had 4.1 ppm.
Judy Decker, a spokeswoman for Lucky Stores, said the chain will decide whether to make changes in its produce policies after receiving the results of its own laboratory analysis. She noted that Lucky produce signs say the chain has been asking growers for three years to certify that they do not use Alar.
“The sign is still correct as far as I am concerned,” Decker said. “The grower has certified to us that he has not used Alar.”
Variance of Claims
But claims of certification vary, said Tom Hale, president of the Washington Apple Commission, which represents 5,000 apple growers in the state. Some growers certify that no Alar was used to the best of their knowledge. Others certify that actual testing was done at harvest time.
“I believe the certifications that are occurring are honest,” Hale said. “But I’m not saying it’s foolproof and something couldn’t slip through.”
Harland Polk, vice president of sales and marketing at Hughes, acknowledged that levels of certification from growers vary.
Hughes will now post signs in stores informing customers that samples of their apple shipments are tested for the chemical, Polk said. Of seven apple samples tested by the store Wednesday, four had no traces of Alar. But some red Delicious apples had 1.2 ppm; others had 2.5 ppm and still others showed 3.6 ppm, Polk said.
Hughes used the same method of testing as Anresco, but the apples tested by Hughes may have come from different growers.
Polk said Hughes had letters from each of those suppliers saying that Alar was not used on their apples to the best of their knowledge. “Those (apples) will be pulled from sale and returned to the supplier, and if it is appropriate we will take legal action against those suppliers,” Polk said.
Stores say that once apples are on the shelves, it is difficult to determine who the growers were.
The EPA estimates that 5% of fresh apples are now treated with Alar. Lindsay, director of the agency’s pesticide registration division, said that estimate is based on reports from county and state agricultural officials who work with growers, the amount of Alar production reported by its manufacturer and private services that collect such information.
Lindsay conceded, however, that the agency must rely in part on what growers say they are doing because “there is no official national reporting system of what people use.”
Consumers Union, the New York-based publisher of Consumer Reports, challenged that estimate in a report showing that 55% of raw apples purchased in the New York region contained Alar. The organization’s test showed residues ranging from .4 to 2.3 ppm on 11 of 20 samples of red apples tested.
Consumer Union called on the EPA to ban Alar “as soon as possible.” In the meantime, consumers should not stop eating raw apples “because the health benefits of apples outweigh the very low risks” associated with Alar, said Consumers Union spokeswoman Marnie Goodman.
Times researcher Angela Justin contributed to this article.
TESTING FOR ALAR
Apples from four stores--Vons, Ralphs, Hughes and Lucky--were tested for daminozide, a growth-regulator marketed under the brand name Alar, which is suspected of causing cancer. Twenty-three samples of eight to 10 apples each were tested. No Alar was found in the Vons or Ralphs samples. Five samples--three from Hughes and two from Lucky--showed traces of the chemical. The legal limit for Alar on apples is 20 parts per million. Anresco Inc., a San Francisco firm, did the testing for The Times.
The laboratory, established in 1943, tests for pesticides, preservatives, nutrients and other compounds in food, usually for private companies. The laboratory used the government-approved PAM II testing method in which apples are put in a blender, mixed with sodium hydroxide, titanium trichloride, an antifoam agent and zinc granules. The mixture is heated and decomposed into unsymmetrical dymethyl hydrazine (UDMH), a breakdown product of Alar. Results are read in a spectrometer, with color intensities proportional to the amount of Alar in the sample. The test has a margin of error of plus or minus 4%. Amounts expressed in parts per million.
HUGHES Red Delicious (large) 0.97 McIntosh (large) 9.00 Red Delicious (extra fancy) 3.70 LUCKY Red Delicious 4.1 Red Delicious (large) 1.8 STORES WHERE SAMPLES WERE TAKEN Vons at 635 Foothill Blvd., La Canada Hughes at 330 Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park Lucky at 6801 Atlantic Blvd., Bell Ralphs at 1745 Garfield Blvd., South Pasadena