Scientists Urge Skepticism
Of Reports About an Unsafe
A panel of experts gathered to assure the public that the American food supply is safe.
Sn early 1989, hysterical moms
Spouredthousands ofgallonsof apple
juice down the drain in response to
reports by a special interest group
claiming that Alar-treated apples
posed a significant risk to their children.
On the three year anniversary of the Alar-
scare, a panel of scientists held a press
conference to declare that apples never
posed a public health risk and called upon
regulatory authorities, the media and
consumers to be more discerning the
nexttime they hear claims thatAmerica's
food supply is unsafe.
On Feb. 26, 1989, the television pro-
gram "60 Minutes," in collaboration with
the Natural Resources Defense Council,
released a non-peer reviewed study al-
leging that Alar, a chemical growth regu-
lator used for years by apple farmers,
posed an "intolerable" risk of cancer,
especially to children. Panic ensued
throughout the U.S. as consumers
stopped buying apples. Apple farmers
experienced economic chaos as their
harvest plummeted in value, losing more
than $100 million in the following months.
"I think its important to remember the
Alar scare because it was such a disaster
for the American people," stresses former
Surgeon General of the U.S. Dr. C. Everett
Koop, principal speaker of the panel. "On
faulty evidence, exaggerated evidence,
the apple industry was destroyed for a
year. Mothers and children were fright-
ened out of their wits."
In the aftermath of the scare, apples
were tossed out and removed from the
marketplace and housewives threw out
countless unopened jars of applesauce.
"And then there was that intrepid, coura-
geous NewYork Statetrooperwho stopped
a school bus and went and extracted an
apple from the lunch bag of one of the
students in the cab," Koop recalls.
"A story which started as somebody's
whim and pet peeve became a national
scandal," he says, "and what we are trying
to do is remind people thatyou have gotto
have a scientific background before you
The panel, which also included Dr.
Elizabeth Whelan, president of the Ameri-
can Council on Science and Health, Dr.
Alan Moghissi, former staffer at the Envi-
ronmental Protection Agency, Dr. Joseph
Rosen, professor of Food Science at
Rutgers University, Dr. M. Ralph Reed,
senior medical advisor at the American
Medical Association and Herbert Slenker,
an Ohio apple farmer, joined the World
Health Organization and the British gov-
ernment in attesting that Alar does not
pose a public health hazard.
The prestigious science publications
Science and Issues in Science and Tech-
nology have respectively called the
claims against Alar "dubious" and "based
on arguable math." Three years after the
scare, the scientific consensus is thatAlar
never posed a risk of cancer to adults or
"At the time of the 'great Alar scare,' I
attempted to put things in perspective,
but it seemed to me that the public only
wanted to hear from the alarmists, the
movie stars or T.V. personalities," Koop
"It's interesting that Surgeon Generars
warnings are almost always 'Don't do
something," Koop muses. "When the Alar
scare came along I was faced with the
opportunity of saying, 'Do something, eat
"But atthattime, the emotional content
of the press was so greatthatmywaming
appeared on the seventeenth page of the
Indeed, Koop adds, there are signs
seen today in some grocery stores certi-
fying that their apples have not been
treated with Alar.
"As a pediatric surgeon, I care deeply
about the health of children, and if Alar
ever posed a health hazard, I would have
said so then and would say so now," he
ACSH sponsored the press confer-
ence to demonstrate that a much larger
problem still exists, according to Whelan.
"The Alar scare is but one sorry example
of what can happen when politics and
hysteria prevail over science in determin-
ing alleged human cancer risks. "America's
food supply is the safest and most cost-
CIfEWCOLOGY. A4111 1992
effective to produce in the world," she
,- says. "Withdrawing from the market use-
( 'ful, safe products of modem technology,
such as Alar, will discourage researchers
from bringing similarly useful products to
the market because there will be little
incentive to invest in a technology that can
be compromised by irrational or unscien-
tific regulatory decisions in the future."
ACSH is not calling for the return of Alar
to the market, Whelan emphasizes. "What
is at stake here goes way beyond Alar in
apples," she says. "The ultimate resolu-
tion of the issue we are addressing will
determine whether or notthe United States
will continue to have the safest, most
abundant and enviable food supply in the
world or whether we will in the future face
rated quality of
food and higher
prices because of
fear and igno-
the importance of
( availability of new
pesticides to our
"Insects and dis-
ease have the
ability to adapt to
no matter how
hostile it may be,"
he says. 'We need
coming out all of
the time to keep Apple farmers lost $1I
ahead of that abil- after the scare.
ity to adapt.
"But we are not getting them," Slenker
warns. "And the failure to control any one
insect or disease can cause the loss of an
entire crop." As evidence of this, Slenker
cites the recent devastation caused by
the outbreak of white flies that became
resistant to pesticides in California.
Koop and Whelan agree that yet an-
other hazard of the scare was its effect of
drawing attention away from the known
effects of human cancer such as ciga-
rette smoking and overexposure to sun-
' light. "By focusing on a strawman, (the
American public) feels that they are doing
something to improve their health, and in
doing so they actually neglect the very
things thatthey could be doing to improve
their health," Koop notes. "They could do
this more legitimately, more readily and
with greater effect if they worried about
not smoking, not drinking, getting exer-
cise and eating a balanced diet."
Despite this, reports continue to sur-
face about dangers in our nation's food
and consumers are increasingly confused
about what to believe.
"Some so-called consumer advocates
continue to tell the public that cancer
causing pesticides are present in our food
supply and that they and their children are
at extreme risk," Koop says. "And I want
to say that this is simply not true. We have
a number of serious health crises in
America today, but food safety is not one
cides," Koop con-
given to some
mals in extremely
high doses cause
tumors. Even if
residues of such
found on some
foods, which they
are, it is at such
as to pose no risk
to human health.
So the conclusion
that I have come
to is that there is
no scientific evi-
dence that resi-
ful, proper appli-
I cation of pesti-
milion in the months cides results in ill-
ness or in death."
"The Alar con-
troversy is a classic example of poor
science, poorly applied societal decision,
resulting in a poor final decision," concurs
former EPA official Moghissi.
Moghissi is not proud of EPA's re-
sponse to the Alar scare. "I plead guilty,"
he says. "I'm proud of a number of things
that EPA has done and less proud of some
other things and Alar and risk assessment
is one of those that I am less proud of."
The time has come for this country to
insist upon truth in risk assessment, accord-
ing to Moghissi. "Risk assessment is not
supposed to be conservative, liberal, Repub-
lican, Democratic, orwhateverpartyideology
may be around," he stresses. Tisk assess-
ment is supposed to be truthful."
Moghissi urges that the animal to man
extrapolation for determining alleged hu-
man cancer risks, and the regulatory
framework for interpreting and imple-
menting results of such testing be com-
pletely reformulated to treat alleged syn-
thetic animal carcinogens the same as
"There is a myth that all manmade
chemicals are the ones that cause cancer
and natural chemicals do no," he says.
"That is nonsense. It is in fact highly likely
that there are more natural carcinogens
than manmade carcinogens, if for no
other reason than because there are a lot
more natural chemicals than there are
"Nature is not benign," Moghissi con-
tinues, "but instead of banning peanuts
and corn, which contain trace amounts of
the natural human carcinogen aflatoxin,
we settolerance levels for'safe consump-
"The human body doesn't know the
difference between natural and synthetic
carcinogens," he adds. "Instead of ban-
ning a synthetic chemical outright be-
cause it contains a trace amount of an
alleged human carcinogen, we likewise
need to set safe tolerance levels. Current
law doesn't allow for this methodology."
Moghissi and the rest of the panel
therefore asked that the media be skepti-
cal of future reports of dangers with our
nation's food supply and urged them to
seek out sound science to confirm or
disprove such reports.
There are two different kinds of groups
who are concerned about human health
and the environment, Moghissi says.
"Those of us who rely on science as the
basis for decision making and those who
rely on ideology rather than science. It's
imperative that you folks in the media
insist upon outstanding science and noth-
ing less than that as the basis for decision-
making in environmental protection."
Withoutthis reliance on sound science,
Koop stresses, the media and the public
is bound to be duped again.
"False alarms about alleged cancer-
causing effects of produce could very
seriously adversely effect the availability
of safe, abundant and affordable food
supplies in this country," he reiterates.
"And we really cannot afford any more
baseless scares about the food supply.
We owe it to ourselves and the health and
economy of the country to take a hard,
critical and very scientific look at the next
charge that is presented to us about the
safety of the American food supply." N
CHEMECOLOGY, April 1992