Photo: Jennifer Boyer (flickr)
Apple A Day
Europe has shown once again that its approach to food chemicals is more restrictive than that of North America.
In the U.S. and Canada, conventionally grown apples and pears are coated with a pesticide to keep them from turning brown from “scald” and to extend shelf life. Diphenylamine, more commonly known as DPA, is not a proven health hazard, but some research points to its possible connection to carcinogens.
Last month, the European Union dramatically restricted the amount of DPA allowed on fruit imports. The average levels found on apples and pears from the U.S. is four times greater than those restrictions. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found DPA on 80 percent of U.S. apples. Those tests are performed after the apples are washed, by the way.
Food safety watchdogs want the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to “catch up” with the European Food Safety Authority and take a more cautious tack.
“We’re concerned about this as an example of a less than protective system,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group.
The group’s concerns center on DPA’s potential to break down into cancer-causing nitrosamines during storage, exposure to heat, or when mixed with other agrochemicals. Nitrosamine contaminants have been found in some cooked meats and latex products, and in those cases the EPA has taken steps to limit exposure to consumers.
Apples To Oranges
The EU ban sheds light on a fundamental difference in how governments approach possible health risks from chemicals. Over the course of a few years, the E.U. body investigated DPA risks, asking companies that produce the chemical to demonstrate its safety. Ultimately, the ban went into effect because of a lack of safety data.
But the EPA currently isn’t looking further into those potential risks. Back in 1998 when the EPA first looked into DPA safety, it found an impurity in the chemical that produces nitrosamines, but determined that the risk of exposure to consumers is low.
Lunder said this case isn’t about the EPA’s failure to exhaustively check every small risk, it’s about evaluating serious hazards.
“We don’t know if nitrosamines form on apples, but if they do, it is a serious concern, because those chemicals are potent carcinogens,” she said. “I’m wary about people talking about precautions, because industry makes it sound like it’s all unicorns and butterflies, and here we’re talking about chemical structures that lead to specific concerns about substances that cause cancer.”
Small Beans For Apple Biz
The economic impact of the E.U. ban is minimal.
A Washington state government report this year estimated a loss of $5 million to $25 million in apple sales to European buyers per year. That’s just a sliver of pie compared to the industry’s $1.1 billion in annual exports overall. A more pressing question is whether the news will drive consumers away from conventionally raised fruit in the U.S.