The Alar "Scare" Was for Real; and So is That "Veggie Hate-Crime" Movement
By Elliott Negin

Columbia Journalism Review

The so-called Alar scare occurred more than seven years ago, but it is still very much in the news – mainly because food and chemical industry trade groups have made it their rallying cry as they lobby for "agricultural-disparagement" laws meant to blunt criticism of their products. The Alar affair also has become a favorite media symbol for a false alarm. Reporters and pundits repeatedly refer to it as a prime example of Chicken Little environmentalism and government regulation run amok.

And they are wrong.

As conventional wisdom has it, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental group, manipulated CBS's 60 Minutes into hyping a story on the dangers of Alar, a chemical sprayed on apples to regulate their growth and enhance their color. The February 1989 broadcast, largely based on the NRDC report "Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children's Food," told an audience of some 40 million that Alar was a dangerous carcinogen.

Then, the tale continues, NRDC's public relations firm, Fenton Communications, convinced other major news organizations to feature the story. Meryl Streep testified before Congress, and on TV talk shows, about Alar's dangers. The public panicked: school systems removed apples from their cafeterias, supermarkets took them off their shelves, and orchard owners lost millions. The maker of Alar, Uniroyal Chemical Co., was ultimately forced to take it off the market, even though, the story goes, it posed no real health risk.

Like most media myths, this one includes a fact or two. There was indeed an overreaction to the 60 Minutes report, as viewers confused a long-term cumulative threat with imminent danger. But Alar is a potent carcinogen, and its risks far outweigh its benefits. After extensive review, the Environmental Protection Agency decided in late 1989 to ban it because "long-term exposure to Alar poses unacceptable risks to public health."

Moreover, studies and reviews completed after the CBS story aired – including one by Uniroyal – confirmed the earlier ones the NRDC relied on, according to Jim Aidala, the EPA associate assistant administrator for pesticides. Alar, the trade name for daminozide, and its breakdown product during heating, UDMH, are animal and "probable human" carcinogens.

Besides the scientific evidence, 60 Minutes has been repeatedly vindicated in the federal courts. On April 29, the Supreme Court upheld without comment an appeals court decision dismissing a $250 million class-action suit filed in 1990 against 60 Minutes by a group of Washington state apple growers, alleging the show falsely disparaged their product (Auvil v. CBS "60 Minutes"). In October 1995, the appeals court had held that "the growers have failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to the falsity of the broadcast." A year earlier the district court had dismissed the case for essentially the same reason.

The apple industry, meanwhile, rebounded quickly. In November 1990, The New York Times reported that "the industry overall has suffered little fallout." And the president of the International Apple Institute told The Times that "the loss of Alar is not a major catastrophe for growers."

A recent database search of "Alar" and "scare" turned up more than 160 references from January 1995 through mid-July. Nearly half of those references were in pieces on agricultural-disparagement legislation, which is designed to protect the reputation of fruits and vegetables from erroneous claims about their safety. The laws, which were triggered by the Alar controversy, make it illegal to disseminate unproven claims that perishable farm products are unsafe.

Another dozen references to the Alar scare appear in book reviews and op-eds about Our Stolen Future – a recent book that contends that synthetic chemicals may be harming human endocrine and reproductive systems.

In all, of the roughly eighty articles, editorials, op-eds, and book reviews that commented directly on whether Alar actually posed a risk, all but a handful present the Alar affair as much ado about nothing. Some samples:

• A June 4 [1996] Gannett News Service article by Kyle Hughes on New York Governor George Pataki's rift with environmentalists says: "The Alar scare comes to mind, when parents were told their children were at risk of being poisoned by chemically treated apples. It wasn't true."

• Lyle Niedens's March 3 [1996] Des Moines Register article on agriculture-industry public relations says: "Proponents of U.S. agriculture point to the Alar scare as a prime example of how misinformation can cloud food-safety topics. A popular industry response was that children would have to eat as many as 800 apples a day for several years before feeling adverse effects of Alar." He did not challenge this false assertion. An EPA statement issued in June 1995 specifically addressed this part of the myth: "The statement that only a huge exposure would pose any risk is nonsense."

• Arizona Republic reporter Jonathan Sidener's April 21, 1995, news article on the state Perishable Agricultural Food False Claims Bill calls the Alar scare a "false alarm."

• An editorial on agricultural-disparagement laws in The Providence Journal-Bulletin on May 6 [1996,] asserts that after the "Alar crisis of 1989 . . . it was soon found that there was no scientific evidence of any harm Alar had done to anyone."

• In a March 7 [1996] book review of Our Stolen Future, the Wall Street Journal reporter Cynthia Crossen refers to the "1989 Alar-on-apples uproar that practically destroyed the reputation of apples as good food using questionable scientific evidence."

• John F. Ross, in a feature story on risk in Smithsonian magazine last November, calls the 60 Minutes Alar piece "perhaps the most dramatic example of erroneous public perception of unnatural and involuntary risk. . ." Ross goes on, "The panic originated from a controversial report of questionable science."

Why are these misconceptions about Alar so entrenched? According to John Stauber, editor of the Madison, Wisconsin-based newsletter PR Watch, the erroneous reporting on Alar is largely due to a sophisticated public relations counterattack mounted shortly after the 60 Minutes show. The controversy "scared the hell out of the agribusiness and food industries," he says. "The food industry said, 'Never again,' [and] set out to convince the news media this was a hoax." The campaign, he adds, has been "very successful."

David Rall, a physician and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, calls the mistaken media coverage "a triumph of publicity over science." He says the contention that there was no scientific evidence that Alar posed a substantial health risk is "preposterous. Either they haven't looked at the data or they're misinterpreting it."

Meanwhile, the libel case has not been well covered. Except for a July 1991 front-page feature on the lawsuit in The New York Times, the case was mentioned in only a handful of newspapers, and usually summarized in two or three paragraphs. Al Meyerhoff, an NRDC lawyer, and other critics say that the 1991 Times article, Apple Growers Bruised and Bitter After Alar Scare, played a key role in shaping public perception. The Times, says Meyerhoff, "reported the lawsuit filing as if it were won. Coupled with the absence of further coverage, plus a concerted disinformation campaign by industry trade groups, Alar become synonymous with a hoax."

PR Watch's Stauber, meanwhile, says the national news media are not paying enough attention to another legacy of the Alar controversy: the agricultural-disparagement laws, sometimes called "veggie hate-crime" bills.

"The laws now in at least twelve states making it illegal to disparage fruits, vegetables, and meat are part of the national campaign to intimidate anyone who raises legitimate concerns about food safety," he says. Stauber believes the laws will eventually be found unconstitutional. But until they are challenged in court, reporting on mad cow disease, E. coil bacteria, or pesticides "could bring on a multimillion-dollar lawsuit."

Negin, a former managing editor of American Journalism Review, is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.

© Elliott Negin 1996, Originally published in Columbia Journalism Review, Sept/Oct. 1996

Letters to the Editor, Columbia Journalism Review, Nov/Dec. 1996

Comforted with Apples

All that really needs to be said about Elliott Negin's article attempting to justify the Alar hoax ("The Alar Scare Was For Real," CJR, Sept./Oct. 1996) is to ask what planet he has been inhabiting for the last seven-and-a-half years. Since that time, virtually every reputable scientific body and leading scientist – ranging from the National Cancer Institute to the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and C. Everett Koop – has gone on record as saying that the use of Alar on apples never posed any risk to the health of either children or adults. Are we to dismiss all of these testimonies as a "concerted disinformation campaign by industry trade groups"?

Virtually the only scientists who still regard the Alar scare as genuine are those associated with the EPA – who, in doing so, are merely carrying out the agency's protocol that any substance that causes cancer in high doses in even a single rodent is therefore a "probable human carcinogen" (a standard that, if applied to natural substances, would lead to the banning of peanuts, honey, mushrooms, and tap water).

And even within the EPA this standard is on the way out, as witness the bipartisan repeal of the Delaney Clause (the law which first institutionalized this standard in 1958) this past summer, and the announcement by the EPA last spring that it would be drawing up new guidelines for the assessment of cancer risk, which would no longer rely on high-dose, single-species animal tests.

Elizabeth M. Whelan
American Council on Science and Health
New York, NY
Elliot Negin replies:

The planet I live on has a long tradition of fact-checking, and most of Elizabeth Whelan's "facts" don't check out. While she's right about C. Everett Koop, she's wrong about the groups she cites. Neither the American Medical Association nor the National Cancer Institute has issued an official statement on Alar. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer and its Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues both concluded that UDMH – the major breakdown product created when Alar-treated apples are processed or eaten – is a carcinogen.

Other prominent organizations (besides EPA) regard UDMH as carcinogenic, including the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Public Health Service and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which urged the EPA to ban Alar.

Whelan also misstates the EPA's "protocol" for assessing cancer risk – despite the fact that the agency sent her a letter in March 1992 detailing its guidelines. The letter pointed out that chemicals have to cause cancer in two animal species and in both sexes to be designated "probable human carcinogens." And it added that the agency is required by law to consider benefits as well as risks before banning a pesticide. In the case of Alar, the EPA obviously determined its risks outweighed its benefits.

Journalists should be wary of quoting Whelan without noting that her organization represents the interests of the food, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries (see "Dr. Whelan's Media Operation," CJR, March/April 1990). Although Whelan has a doctorate in public health, she seems more concerned about the health of her benefactors, which include American Cyanamid, Archer Daniels Midland, Chevron, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Exxon, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Monsanto, Pfizer, Union Carbide, and Uniroyal – the company that manufactured Alar.