Alar Found in Apples at Four Upscale Markets
Apples purchased at four upscale Southern California markets, including Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Foods Market, were found in independent tests to contain Alar, a potentially hazardous chemical that the federal government says is now rarely used.
The tests, performed by a laboratory hired by The Times, found Alar traces in some varieties of red apples sold at Mrs. Gooch’s in Beverly Hills, Gelson’s Markets in Century City, Bristol Farms in South Pasadena and Farmers Market in Los Angeles.
The results show that shopping at so-called luxury or health-oriented stores does not necessarily ensure that apples will be Alar-free. They also raise questions about the accuracy of the federal government’s estimate that only 5% of fresh apples are currently treated with the chemical.
Samples Contain Alar
Of 25 samples of red apples tested by The Times, nine contained Alar. Earlier testing for The Times found Alar in apples sold in two major Southern California supermarket chains, Hughes and Lucky.
Residues ranged from .59 parts per million in a sample from Gelson’s to 9.48 p.p.m. in a batch from Mrs. Gooch’s. The allowable limit for Alar, set by the Environmental Protection Agency before it was linked to cancer, is 20 p.p.m. An agency spokesman said that amount or less will not cause health problems in the short run although it might be harmful over a lifetime of consumption. The agency is expected to ban the chemical next year.
A spokeswoman for Mrs. Gooch’s said Sandy Gooch, the owner, was “rather upset and incredulous” when told of the test results. The spokeswoman noted that Mrs. Gooch’s does not claim that all its apples are Alar-free. However, a store employee, who was asked by The Times if any of Mrs. Gooch’s apples contained Alar, said they did not.
Mrs. Gooch’s produce manager said the employee was new and was not authorized to give that information to customers.
A sample of Mrs. Gooch’s Rome Beauty apples had 9.48 p.p.m. of Alar and its large Red Delicious contained residues of 2.62. Shelf signs above those apples did not indicate whether Alar was used. Instead, they said the fruit contained a wax that was “safe and harmless.”
Later Sample Tested
An initial test of Mrs. Gooch’s extra fancy Red Delicious “Alar-free” apples found no Alar, but a later sample of apples marked “Alar-free” was found to contain 1.48 p.p.m. of the chemical.
Mrs. Gooch’s store officials insisted that its “Alar-free Red Delicious” are, in fact, free of the chemical, and attributed the test result to an error or to the possibility that a customer placed one or two of the Alar-treated apples in the “Alar-free” shelf.
E. Jerry Oliveras, associate director of Anresco Inc., a San Francisco laboratory that performed The Times’ tests, described the chances of an incorrect positive result for Alar as “very small, extremely small.” He said, however, that one “hot” apple containing large amounts of Alar can substantially change the Alar content of a sample of 10 apples.
Ray Hachiya, produce buyer for Mrs. Gooch’s, said he does not believe the store mixed up Alar-treated fruit with the other apples and maintained that he did not use fruit from another grower to supplement his regular supply. The store did not dispute that their commercially grown red apples contain Alar, although the spokeswoman described the 9.48 p.p.m. detected in one sample as “off the wall.”
Following The Times’ results, Mrs. Gooch’s hired another laboratory to test its apples. A spokeswoman said no Alar was found in its “Alar-free” apples, or its small and large Red Delicious. Rome Beauties contained 2.7 p.p.m. of Alar, she said. Those apples were taken from unpacked produce crates. The Times tested fruit from the store’s bins.
Other Recent Tests
The Times also recently tested apples from Lucky, Hughes, Vons and Ralphs. Of 23 samples, five had Alar. None was found in the apples from Vons and Ralphs, which submit their fruit to a private laboratory for testing. Hughes and Lucky, whose apples were found to contain Alar traces, have since begun submitting their fruit for laboratory screening.
Representatives of Consumers Union, private laboratories and a grower said in interviews that they were skeptical of the EPA’s estimate that only 5% of fresh apples are treated with Alar. The Consumers Union, the New York-based publisher of Consumer Reports, tested red apples earlier this year and found that 55% contained the chemical.
The EPA concedes that its estimate is not authoritative because records are not kept on use. However, the agency says that other surveys, such as those of The Times and Consumers Union, are finding higher percentages because their tests involve only red apples. The EPA’s estimate includes green and yellow apples, which are rarely treated.
Growers also say that the apples on the shelf now are more likely to contain the chemical than those sold earlier in the season. Alar is sprayed on apples intended for storage to keep them crisp and attractive.
Persists in Root System
The EPA says the average Alar residue detected on apples is 1 p.p.m.--1/20th of the allowable level. Amounts less than that may result from Alar use in previous seasons because the chemical persists in the root system of the tree. For every 100,000 people who eat apples containing 1 p.p.m. Alar, there will be about 4.5 additional cancer cases over their lifetime, according to the agency.
At Gelson’s Century City store, 1.74 p.p.m. of Alar was found in small Red Delicious, .73 p.p.m. in McIntosh and .59 p.p.m. in large Red Delicious. Shelf signs say the store purchases apples only from packers that require growers to document that Alar was not used. “In spite of these measures,” says a disclaimer on the sign, “consumers should be aware that in some instances apples may contain Alar residue.”
Allan Scharn, president of Encino-based Gelson’s Markets, said the eight-store chain requires its apple suppliers to certify that Alar was not used. In addition, the market submits random samples of apples to an independent laboratory for verification and returns any fruit in which the chemical is detected.
He said the chain recently put the disclaimer on its signs because “the nature of agriculture is such that we do not feel that there is any way we can absolutely guarantee that a particular apple or a particular sample of apple may not contain that residue.”
“It’s kind of the roll of the dice. . ,” he said. “There seems to be evidence that the residue from applications in the orchard can remain in the soil from one season to the next, and also there is the possibility of an over-spray application from an adjoining orchard.”
Doesn’t Test Produce
Unlike Gelson’s, Jurgensen’s Grocery Co. in South Pasadena does not test its produce. But the president of the market said growers provide test results showing that no Alar was used. The Times tests did not detect any Alar in Jurgensen’s apples.
At Bristol Farms in South Pasadena, a sample of Red Rome apples was found to contain 3.6 p.p.m. of Alar. Grant Gravatte, produce director for the markets, said the store tested its apples for Alar two weeks ago. The Red Romes were not tested, however, because they were not available at the time, he said. Following The Times’ findings, Gravatte said, the Red Romes were removed from the shelves.
Apples from two produce stands at Farmers Market also contained Alar. Rome Beauty apples sold at Macardican’s Fruit Stand had 1.65 p.p.m., and Rome Beauty from Farm Fresh Produce contained 1.59 p.p.m.
Randy Otsuji, owner of Macardican’s, said he wishes Alar would be removed from the market because he cannot assure his customers that his apples are free of the chemical. Robert Stone, owner of Farm Fresh, said he has never asked his suppliers whether the fruit contains Alar.
A Farm Fresh employee, asked by The Times if the apples contained Alar, said “no spray” was used. Stone said his employees “probably don’t know what the hell (Alar) is.”
TESTING FOR ALAR Apples from five markets--Mrs. Gooch’s, Jurgensen’s, Gelson’s, Bristol Farms and Farmers Market--were tested for daminozide, a growth regulator marketed under the brand name Alar, which has been linked to cancer. Twenty-five samples of 10 apples each were tested. No Alar was found in Jurgensen’s apples. The allowable level for Alar on apples is 20 parts per million. Anresco Inc., a San Francisco laboratory, 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. Anresco used the government-approved PAM II testing method in which apples are put in a blender, mixed with sodium hydroxide, titanium trichloride, an anti-foam 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. MRS. GOOCH’S Rome Beauty: 9.48 Red Delicious (large): 2.62 Red Delicious: 1.48 BRISTOL FARMS Red Rome: 3.60 GELSON’S Red Delicious (small): 1.74 McIntosh: 0.73 Red Delicious (large): 0.59 FARMERS MARKET Rome Beauty (Macardicans Fruit Stand): 1.65 Rome Beauty (Farm Fresh Produce Stand): 1.59 STORES WHERE SAMPLES WERE TAKEN Bristol Farms, 606 Fair Oaks Ave., South Pasadena Gelson ‘ s, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City Mrs. Gooch’s, 239 N. Crescent Drive, Beverly Hills Farmers Market, W. 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles Times researcher Angela Justin contributed to this article.