How safe is food?

Pesticides, drugs, preservatives are in almost everything we eat
but that’s not necessarily bad

Sometimes customers send sandwiches back, saying they ordered cheddar, not Swiss. What they do not realize, is good cheese does not have coloring in it. Cheese is not orange. If you’ve ever seen orange milk, tell me about it."

Gretchen Notermann
Tastings restaurant and bakery

Staff writer

CONSIDER the chemical odyssey of the potato.

As a seed, it is treated with fungicide to prevent disease. The row In which it is planted is treated with nematicide to guard against organisms that might damage the plant roots.

Synthetic fertilizer about a thousand pounds per acre is added at the time of planting. Herbicide is applied for weed control. As the crop grows, it is sprayed every few weeks with insecticide. Or, a systemic may be added to the soil, making the plant tissue poisonous to insects.

At harvest time, the green tops are sprayed with herbicide to make it easier to drive harvesting equipment. After harvesting, the potatoes are treated with sprout inhibitor.

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The federal government says we have the safest food supply in the world, but a national consumer group says our food supply is contaminated with drugs, preservatives and pesticides.

"I think people can generally assume that their produce is treated wIth pesticides, that poultry has been fed antibiotics," said Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for ScIence In the Public Interest, based in Washington

The center thinks consumers ought to be able to find out at pocery stores and farmers’ markets just what is in the food theyre buying. The center also thinks consumers ought to ask for chemical- and drug-free foods if they want them

"Consumers have to make their demands known," Jacobson said. Jacobson said the turning point for him was finding out that apples often are treated with daminozide, a chemical that increases storage life. It also is a suspected carcinogen. (Consumers Union, in the September issue of its magazine, "Consumer Reports," called for the federal government to prohibit daminozide residues in baby foods, apple juice and applesauce.)

"I decided, Why don’t we try to start a project?’" Jacobson said.

The result is "Americans for Safe Food," a nationwide campaign the center has Just launched. Among its activities, the group will be asking consumers to distribute congressional petitions and meet with grocers

The results, the center hopes, will include a grassroots movement of concerned consumers, a ban on feeding antibiotics to animals, a ban on certain animal drugs and pesticides and national standards for labeling products "organic" and "natural".


"If somebody asked me, ‘Do you perceive a problem,’ my answer would be no," said Charles L. Smith, departmental coordinator of pesticides and pesticide assessment with the Department of Agriculture in Washington

"I’m not at all concerned personally with the wholesomeness of the American food supply. I eat appIes," Smith said My favorite app le, without Alar, probably couldn’t be produced." Smith said. Alar, a brand name for daminozide, prevents Staymen apples from becoming gnarled.

Smith said that knowing the testing and research that goes  into establishing federal standards, "If something stays on the market, I’ve got no worry at all"

Dr. John Luna, an entomologist at Virginia Tech, said his concern lies on both sides of the safe food issue. "I share the consumer concern for pesticides in the food," he said.

"At the same time, I share the farmers’ concern for staying in business". "I believe we’re using entireldi too many pesticides," Luna said. "The problem is that in many situations, farmers do not have good information"

Luna, who is a pest management specialist, works to help farmers develop pest control programs that are economical and ecologically sound.

One example is field scouting. Farmers pay Tech-trained students and other people to check their crops weekly for pests and make recommendations For a field of alfalfa or soybeans, field scouting costs less than $3 an acre, Luna said. During the past season, 162 Virginia farmers paid for counting services for their alfalfa crops.

So instead of using pesticides as insurance for the crop, Luna said, "farmers are only spraying when they have a serious outbreak of pests"

The Division of Product and Industry Regulation In the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services operates a biological control program that involves shipping beneficial insects to extension agents for distribution to farmers. Wasps, for instance, are used to attack the alfalfa weevil.

Even with such alternatives, "there are times when chemicals are needed and should be used," division director Billy W. Southall said. "I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest any undue concern is warranted."


Luna rarely uses chemicals on his own vegetable garden Instead, he releases predatory insects and botanical insecticides, such as pyrethrum, which is derived from a chrysanthemum daisy grown in Kenya. It is effective against aphids and beetles and is relatively non-toxic, Luna said.

A major problem that farmers face in using such methods is that more worms and blemishes will show up if a heavy program of pesticides is not used, he said.

American consumers suffer from entomophobia fear of insects. "That entomophobia translates into a consumer demand that requires extensive use of pesticides," Luna said. "They don’t want to see a worm in an apple They don’t want to see blemishes."

Sweet corn from Florida gets as many as 18 applications of pesticides so that shoppers will not find any worms in the end of the ear, Luna said. If customers were willing to simply chop off the end of the ear, the corn would be fine for eating and the amount of insecticide could be reduced 50 percent to 75 percent, he said.

The people who already buy organic produces Luna said, are the ones who, like himself, "don’t mind an occasional worm or bug bite."

The Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op is seeing more of a demand for such products. The store gets organic produce once a week from Maryland and carries organic beef produced by a farmer in Floyd.

The organic products come at a higher price. Organic avocados cost 98 cents each, compared to the stores regular price of 49 cents. The organic hamburger is $3.21 a pound.

"People buy organic, even though it’s expensive," assistant store manager Susan Klenzle said, defining organic as being completely devoid of chemicals. Where once such foods would have appealed mostly to a back-to-earth type of customers Kienzle said, "now it seems like people from all walks of life are buy ng organic food. People seem to be more into health than they used to be."

An example of a local organic product is the apple cider produced by Mountain Orchards in Copper Hill Olivia and Mark Kaynor, who purchase natural growth and pest control products from Necessary Trading Coin an in New Castle, feed their orchard of 500 trees seaweed, trace minerals and Bermuda beach sand four times a year. They also release wasp and lacewing larvae to keep pests away.

The Kaynors have found a mixed market for their product, which they have sold at the Harvest Moon store in Floyd, Kroger’s at Cave Spring Corners in Roanoke and Annie Kay's in Blacksburg.

It took a year to sell half adozen cases of their cider at Kroger. Mountain Orchards sold that much in a week at Harvest Moon, a health-food store.

The difference. Kaynor said, is that supermarket customers are not willing to pay 50 cents or so more for their product, which is $3 a gallon.

"We’re seeing some money, she said. "I wouldn’t call it profit," because of the investment Mountair Orchards is putting into organic farming But spending money on the trees now, Kaynor said, will mean "less care in the future, because they’ll be more resistant."

The Kaynors practice what they preach. They raise chickens, put up venison and get seafood from a relative who is a fisherman in Northi Carolina. They avoid grocery store meat "I don’t need estrogen,’ Kaynor said.


Regarding drugs and animals, "If the productd are properly used, there’s no harm to the consumers" said Dr. Max Crandall, assistant director for information and education at the Food and Drug Adxninistration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine

For instance, Crandall said, a product containing sulfamithazine is approved for use in swine feed to promote growth on less food.


Sweet corn from Florida gets as many as 18 applIcations of pesticides so that shoppers will not find any worms in the end of an ear. If customers were willing to simply chop off the end of the ear, the corn wouid be fine for eating and the amount of insecticide could be reduced 50 to 75 percent

Published in the Roanoke Times and World News, Date on the Letters to the editor page

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