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As Bans Widen, U.S. Agencies Say Apples Pose Little Threat to Young

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Washington--Saying a chemical used by some apple growers poses no "imminent hazard" to children, three federal agencies last week called on schools to continue serving apples in their lunch programs.

The statement, issued by the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration, came almost two weeks after some of the nation's largest school districts began pulling apples from their lunch menus and consumers began to boycott apples. The action by last week had also spread to many smaller districts.

"The fda, epa and the U.S. Department of Agriculture believe there is not an imminent hazard posed to children in the consumption of apples at this time, despite claims to the contrary," the joint statement issued last Thursday reads.

"Therefore, the federal government encourages school systems and others responsible for the diets of children to continue to serve apples and other nutritious fruit to American children."

Concern among parents and educators had been fueled by a report issued by an
environmental group late last month that concluded that as many as one in every 4,200 children were at risk of developing cancer from their exposure to Alar, a chemical used by growers to promote crispness in apples.

The epa and the apple industry, which strongly dispute the validity of the National Resources Defense Council's report, estimate that 5 percent or less of all apples are treated with this chemical. The fda has said that figure may be as high as 10 percent.

But in its report and in Senate testimony last week, the research group said other studies had found that up to 30 percent of apples sold at one large supermarket chain were treated with Alar.

Reflecting these uncertainties, education officials in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Chicago, all citing health concerns, have excluded apples from their food programs.

In an odd twist of circumstance, many districts last week also were discarding produce thought to have come from Chile, following the discovery of small amounts of cyanide in two Chilean grapes shipped to Philadelphia. Late last week, the fda was expected to lift its embargo on Chilean produce, since testing revealed no additional problems.

Although figures were not readily available, school food-service officials estimated that the produce scares would cost their districts in the thousands of dollars.

Not a New Debate

Environmentalists have long claimed that Alar, the commercial name for the chemical daminozide, is hazardous. Studies linking the chemical with health problems have been known within the scientific community for about 15 years.

The epa has begun the process of trying to remove Alar from the market three times. In the late 1970's, the agency acknowledged at a Senate hearing last week, the first such attempt was dropped after agency officials met in a closed-door session with officials of Uniroyal, the company that produces the chemical.

A second attempt, made in 1985, was blocked after the agency's advisory board said there was not enough information to bar Alar. And last month, the agency again announced it would begin to study taking action against the chemical.

Federal officials acknowledged last week that more recent studies have linked Alar with cancerous tumors in mice, but still urged schools to continue using apples in their food programs.

'Were They Wrong?'

Despite the new federal statement, school officials in several districts that had excluded apples said late last week that they had no immediate plans to change their policy.

In New York City, said Kevin Gill, the district's executive director for support services, the decision to stop ordering apples was made in early February, when the epa announced that it was once again beginning the approximately 18-month process that could lead to Alar's removal from the market.

The agency said that eating normal amounts of food treated with Alar could cause cancer in 5 out of every 100,000 people over a 70-year lifetime exposure.

Over 18 months, adults eating Alar-coated fruit would have a one chance in a million of getting cancer, the agency estimated, saying nine children in one million would also develop cancer during their lifetime because of their exposure to the chemical.

While saying he was "encouraged" by the joint statement, Mr. Gill, whose system serves approximately 13 million apples to nearly one million children yearly, said he would not lift the ban until federal authorities could assure him that children would not be at risk.

"Are they backing off their statement that it poses a serious risk to children?" he said. "Were they wrong, or was I misinterpreting what a serious risk of cancer it could be?"

Al Heier, a spokesman for the epa, said that despite the new statement, the agency was not rejecting its previous conclusions concerning the health risks posed by Alar. But he added that "we don't think the risk of eating the apples are that great for an additional 18 months, in light of the lifetime risks."

'A Toxic Bogeyman'

The agency, as well as the apple industry and some health professionals, argue that the several dozen districts that have moved to exclude apples from their menus have acted in response to public pressure, rather than after carefully reviewing scientific evidence.

Interviews with school officials in several districts that moved to ban apples confirm that some, including Atlanta and Chicago, acted without asking for the advice of outside health experts.

Maureen Miklavic, a spokesman for the International Apple Institute, said the apple bans are "completely unwarranted" and that school officials "don't really know the facts of the matter."

Ms. Miklavic, whose group represents 90 percent of the companies involved in the $800-million domestic apple industry, said consumers would have to eat 28,000 pounds of apples a day for 70 years before they would be exposed to the cancer levels claimed by environmental groups.

Some have also argued that the apple bans do little to allay the fears of both children and parents, who are concerned that the food they eat is unsafe.

At a press conference last week, Kenneth Kizer, the director of California's Department of Health Services, said school apple bans are "reactionary and premature, and indeed our fear is they have really created a toxic bogeyman."

"When we send a message to our kids that apples aren't safe, what are they going to eat?" he said. "They're going to eat Twinkies and Zingers."

Further agitated by the fears surrounding Chilean fruit, some parents seemed to be taking extreme measures to protect their children. In Oregon last week, state police said a concerned parent asked them to track the school bus carrying her 11-year-old daughter, who had brought a lunch containing grapes from Chile on a school trip. The bus was stopped in a Portland suburb, the police said, and the girl was asked to surrender her fruit.

"In L.A., it's easier to ban apples than assault rifles," said Kenneth August, a spokesman for Dr. Kizer's department, which is testing some processed apple-products for Alar.

Getting Into 'Peoples' Way'

School districts and suppliers affected by the produce bans, meanwhile, last week were juggling logistics and costs.

In Fairfax, Va., for instance, where school officials decided to reverse a week-long ban against apples last week after finding that tests revealed no Alar in their produce, some food-storage sites had an overbundance of the fruit.

Dorothy Pannell, Fairfax's director of food services, said her district pays produce suppliers approximately $500,000 to deliver fruits and vegetables twice a week for six months to 40 sites.

The apples, which along with other produce are stored in walk-in refrigerators, are incorporated into menus served during the following two to three days.

"I'm sure the apples got into some peoples' way," she said. "They take up a good bit of space. Luckily, apples are one of those fruits that can keep."

The Chilean produce scare also affected her district, Ms. Pannell said. The district has about $3,000 worth of grapes on hand, she said, whose value will be refunded by a local supplier.

Mac Edwards, whose firm, Edwards' Produce, supplies fruits to the Dade County, Fla., school district, said he had been unsuccessful in convincing the school officials that his company sells only Alar-free apples.

A Dramatic Pitch

Last week, the Senate's Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs, and Alcoholism also began to take a closer look at the possible health effects of Alar and other pesticides on children.

John Moore, the epa's acting deputy director, told lawmakers that flaws in the federal pesticide law make it difficult for his agency to ban dangerous chemicals outright.

Due to loopholes in the 1972 law, he said, new pesticides are held to a higher health and safety standard than those chemicals, such as Alar, which were "grandfathered" into the statute.

In a hearing marked by theatrics, including an appearance by the Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep, who testified as the chairman of Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits, federal administrators, health officials, and Congressmen debated the merits of excluding apples from school-lunch menus.

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, made a dramatic pitch for eliminating apple boycotts when he tossed Dr. Frank Young, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, a shiny red apple from a basketful of similar fruit andasked, "Tell me if that apple is safe for my children, my grandchildren, for my seven grandchildren, to eat?"

"Based on the best knowledge that I've been able to review in the last three years, the answer is yes," said Dr. Young.

Representative Gerry Sikorski, Democrat of Minnesota, said he would introduce legislation banning all use of the chemical in food production.

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