How a Public Health Story Becomes an Industry Legend
If the name Alar means anything to you, it probably means something related to apples and Meryl Streep and hysterical environmentalists.Those mental associations have been nurtured in us by industry-funded public relations groups, who repeat over and over the claim that the "Alar scare" was deliberate hype, which alarmed the public unnecessarily and caused irreparable harm to apple growers. They have made Alar the poster child of maligned chemicals.The media have accepted this legend without question. The New York Times, October 26, 1996: "Alar -- a scare that turned out to be overblown." The San Jose Mercury News, November 14, 1996: "In 1989 the Alar scare cost apple growers an estimated $100 million." The Richmond, Virginia, Times-Dispatch, March 31, 1996: "the bogus Alar scare of 1989." An article by Elliot Negin in Columbia Journalism Review cites 160 references to Alar in 80 different articles published in 1995. "All but a handful present the Alar affair as much ado about nothing."Here's what really happened.In 1968 (before there was an EPA) the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the Uniroyal corporation a license to sell Alar, which is a growth hormone. It holds apples longer on the tree, so growers have more picking time before the fruit drops, and the apples have more time to develop red color. These are economic and cosmetic benefits. We had plenty of apples before there was Alar, and we have them now, though Alar is no longer used.In 1973, five years after Alar was licensed, an article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that a breakdown product of Alar called UMDH causes cancer in mice. This was disturbing news, because Alar degrades into UMDH in the human stomach and when it is heated -- for example, in processing applesauce or apple juice. More studies in 1977, 1978 and 1979 showed UMDH to be a potent carcinogen in mice, rats, and hamsters.By law the EPA should have banned Alar at that point, because cancer-causing agents were not permitted in processed food. But the government dragged its feet. It took five more years to begin proceedings to ban Alar, which by then was used on 38 percent of the apples grown in the U.S. In 1986, with the EPA still dithering, the National Food Processors Association announced that Alar or UMDH had been found in 73 samples of applesauce and 132 samples of apple juice. Gerber even found Alar in its baby food.The EPA finally decided not to ban Alar, but to cut by 50 percent the amount that could legally be contained in apples. That was the recommendation of an eight-member EPA scientific committee, seven of whom were paid consultants to the chemical industry.Others came to their own conclusions. Gerber, Heinz, and Beech Nut stopped using Alar-treated apples in baby foods. Safeway, Kroger, Grand Union, and Giant grocery chains said they would not stock apples treated with Alar. The American Academy of Pediatrics urged an Alar ban. Maine and Massachusetts restricted Alar use. All this happened three years before the "scare."By 1987 citizens' groups, states, and pediatricians were suing the EPA to enforce the law and ban Alar. In that same year the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) began the study that would lead to Meryl Streep and "60 Minutes."The NRDC released its findings two years later in a press conference and a book. It said that children receive higher exposures to chemicals in foods than adults do, because kids eat more fruits and vegetables -- especially apples, applesauce, and apple juice. Also, children are more sensitive to many toxins than are adults. The NRDC study discussed not just Alar, but 23 chemicals, mostly pesticides. The point was: the regulatory process is not protecting us sufficiently, especially not our kids.Knowing the kind of firepower industry would bring to this issue, the NRDC hired a public relations firm to be sure its message was heard. The PR firm and the natural dramatizing instincts of the media did the rest. The producers of "60 Minutes," knowing the mythic power of the tainted apple, from Adam and Eve to Snow White, broadcast an image of an apple marked with a skull and crossbones. A Time cover showed an apple with a prohibiting bar through it. Meryl Streep became a spokesperson for pure food. School boards pulled apples out of lunchrooms and mothers pulled them out of lunch boxes. Uniroyal gave up and voluntarily stopped selling Alar in the U.S.Now what is the story here? Is it about an innocent chemical, falsely accused, or about a government agency failing to protect public health? Is it about an essential technology to make a healthful product or a marginal technology that convenienced producers but endangered consumers? Is it about the exaggerations of environmentalists or of media?Of course you don't get to decide what the story is. Millions of dollars have already been spent to perpetuate the legend of the Great Overblown Alar Scare.