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Meryl Streep, Apple Industry Trade Barbs Over Alar

March 9, 1989 GMT

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) _ Actress Meryl Streep and the Washington apple industry squared off in a bicoastal battle Wednesday over the movie star’s talk show appearances warning against eating Alar-treated apples.

Ms. Streep has little scientific knowledge about the chemical daminozide, sold under the name Alar, and should not go on television denouncing it, said Chris Schlect, a Washington fruit industry lobbyist based in Yakima.

The Academy Award-winning actress, a founder of the group Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits, has appeared on the ″Today″ and ″Donahue″ shows and other programs recently denouncing the use of Alar.

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″She is not a Ph.D. from Harvard,″ said Schlect, head of the Northwest Horticultural Council. ″She is not knowledgeable about why (farmers) use products or what would happen if they were not (used).″

Ms. Streep acknowledged her lack of scientific training in an interview Wednesday, but said that was not the issue.

″I’m not a scientist so I have to go with the best information available,″ Ms. Streep told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from her agent’s office in New York. ″I eat them and I feed them (to her three children) so I am involved in the apple issue.″

″I’m not interested in beating up on farmers. I’m interested in farmers being supported to grow in ways not threatening to health,″ said Ms. Streep, whose group is tied in with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based non-profit consumer watchdog agency.

Although the safety of Alar has been debated for years, the latest flareup began Feb. 26 when the CBS news program ″60 Minutes″ aired a story on a report by the NRDC titled ″Intolerable Risk: Pesticides In Our Children’s Food.″

The NRDC released the report the next day, saying that 5,500 to 6,200 preschoolers were projected to get cancer sometime in their lives as a result of childhood exposure to six to eight chemicals used in fruits and vegetables.

The report found the greatest risk from UDMH, a breakdown product of daminozide, also known as Alar. Preschoolers consume six times more fruit than the average adult, and the NRDC estimated that the average preschooler’s cancer risk from exposure to UDMH in their first six years was approximately one case for every 4,000 preschoolers exposed.

That report touched off an uproar in the apple industry and also among some scientists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who said it was misleading and alarmist.

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Alar is not a pesticide. It is a chemical growth regulator that is sprayed on apple trees after they blossom. It works internally to improve the color and firmness of apples, mainly by keeping them on the tree longer. That extends shelf life and also gives growers a longer harvest time, which can be critical in times of labor shortage.

The EPA proposed a ban on Alar earlier this decade, although it did not go through with that. However, the EPA announced earlier this year that it planned to take steps towards banning Alar by 1990 because of the results of preliminary cancer tests on rats.

To combat the TV blitz by Ms. Streep and the NRDC, the Washington Apple Commission, a grower-financed group, announced Wednesday that it had spent $1 million on full-page ads that will appear Friday in New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles papers, as well as USA Today.

″It’s unfortunate she’s using the emotions she can evoke in consumers ... against products and making opinions not based on fact,″ commission spokeswoman Vicky Scharlau said of Ms. Streep.

Washington is the nation’s leading apple producer, growing about half of the nation’s supermarket apples.

Also Wednesday, the head of the American Council on Science and Health said groups calling for an end to chemicals in farming are naive and ″a major national threat to security.″

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan of the New York-based group of 250 scientists said abandoning chemicals would leave the nation’s food supply vulnerable to the whims of nature.

″Meryl Streep is not going to tell them (the public) the consequences of not using Alar,″ Ms. Whelan said, adding that nature is full of carcinogens and that Alar has not been proven to cause cancer.

The earlier Alar controversy had prompted the apple industry to severely cut its use of Alar, fearing a consumer backlash. The Apple Commission has said only about 5 percent of the total apple acreage is treated with the chemical.

Ms. Streep said the 5 percent figure may not be accurate.

She noted that Consumer Reports magazine found Alar in 23 of 32 apple juice samples it tested last year, although all the producers contended they use Alar-free apples.

Schlect argued that the Alar content in the apple juice samples was below the allowable federal limits and was left-over traces from past Alar use.