Twenty years ago this week 60 Minutes introduced much of the country to Alar, a chemical used to make apples ripen on time. They argued that Alar was also an unregulated carcinogen, after which a panic ensued. Food journalist Michael Pollan argues that the fallout from the Alar scare is still all around us and the real story of what happened is in need of retelling.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Twenty years ago this week, 60 Minutes aired the segment, A is for Apple, about the danger posed by the chemical Alar. To drive the point home, the piece was illustrated with the image of an apple with skull and crossbones. Alar had been used for decades to make apples ripen all at the same time, but the National Resources Defense Council, which released a report the day after the 60 Minutes broadcast, maintained that it was also a carcinogen. It sparked a nationwide food panic. Meryl Streep testified before Congress about Alar’s risk and the media ran with the story of the beloved American foodstuff that just might kill you. In the aftermath, the EPA ended the use of Alar in the U.S. and apple growers filed a lawsuit against 60 Minutes. And although they lost in that court, they won in the court of public opinion because, as Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, observes the Alar scare is remembered today as a case study in media-induced hysteria.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Anytime a question is raised about food safety, it’s “Remember the Alar.” The food industry has established this in the public mind as an example of a panic over nothing. I would argue that it’s a panic, but over something. This is a version of history; it’s a contested version of history. And, you know, I think that we shouldn't simply accept the version that corporate agriculture is putting out there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even though they lost their suit, there was a legal legacy left in something called “food libel laws.”
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, exactly. This is the other way this has proven to be a boon to the food industry. Fear of similar panics convinced legislators in 13 or 14 states to pass these veggie libel laws. These laws are kind of incredible. They've never had a constitutional test. It’s hard to imagine they would survive it. But basically they hold that if you impugn a food crop and what you say about it damages sales, as happened with the Alar story, or when Oprah was sued by the cattlemen for impugning the American hamburger, you can sue for damages. It is easier to get sued for libeling a vegetable or a piece of meat than it is a person. But the industry has been careful not to go after big players, like The New York Times, who might actually, you know, press the case. And they did go after Oprah but, of course, they lost. Nevertheless, they cost her more than a million dollars in legal bills and, I think, sent a really chilling message to anyone who would write about food, that you had better be careful or you'd better have very deep pockets, that you could be sued.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Other than food libel laws, did Alar have any other impact on the reporting of food and agriculture?
MICHAEL POLLAN: I think it probably made reporters more skeptical of pesticide stories. Even though Alar was not a pesticide, it fell under that rubric of chemicals applied to our food. The whole area of pesticides and their effect is a very vexed area to write about. It’s very hard to prove cause and effect. The epidemiology does suggest that there was some link between the large-scale increase in childhood leukemia beginning in the '50s and '60s and its decline in the '90s after some of the nastiest chemicals were taken out of the food supply. But I think that all this has made journalists a little more careful about wading into this area, for better or worse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, at the time, the industry fought well and it fought [LAUGHS] hard, and it didn't just have to fight conflicting facts. It also had to battle the imagery of the apple – you know, Adam and Eve, apple a day, Snow White’s poisoned apple, children at risk. This was a made-for-media narrative.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, apples are very special. I think that that was one of the reasons this story had such legs and people reacted so strongly. But, you know, it called our attention, too, to something very important. Before Alar, pesticide residue levels were based on adults; you know, in other words, these tolerances that the EPA would establish was based on what an adult could tolerate of these toxins. And after Alar, it was much better understood that children eat in a very peculiar way. First, they eat more volume per body mass than we do, because they're growing, but second, they eat unreasonable amounts of the same thing, so that a child drinking apple juice from a bottle all day is getting a really - a large amount of any residues on that apple, a concentrated amount. So when the pesticide laws were rewritten in 1996, the Food Quality Protection Act, to take account of the way that children actually eat – and that was a very positive development - and I think it really was the Alar episode that focused attention on that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that’s the fact of Alar. What about the message of Alar? In the last 20 years it’s been fought over in the media, in the court of public opinion, intensive lobbying on both sides. On this, the 20th anniversary, what have we learned?
MICHAEL POLLAN: The writing of history has been done by the victors, who use this to repel so-called scare stories over and over again, and it has gotten great mileage by citing it as an example of irrational fear about food. However, it also is part of the narrative of the growth of alternative food in this country. Beginning in ’89-’90, people looking for alternatives to conventional apples turned to organic. And there was a cover story in Newsweek Magazine from this period called Panic for Organic.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And there was such demand for organic food that they could not keep it on the shelves. And a whole lot of investment capital moved into organic. Many more organic acres were planted. And you also have that year Congress for the first time passes legislation to establish organic food as an official USDA label and begins supporting organic. So it’s the beginning of a whole history of an alternative food chain, nourished over and over again by food scares. So we learned in Mad Cow Disease that we were feeding cattle to cattle. So we learned in E-Coli that cow manure ends up in the meat. You know, we learned a little bit about how all those peanut products are made. We get this education through crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you say, given what we know about Alar and all the panics that followed, are we better off with them or without them?
MICHAEL POLLAN: With the panics?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
MICHAEL POLLAN: [LAUGHS] We're better off given no reason to panic [LAUGHS], I think, really -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, but that isn't an option [LAUGHS], not yet, anyway. I mean –
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - they are massively educational.
MICHAEL POLLAN: And that is the upside of a food panic. I mean, look at, you know, Mad Cow Disease in England and here - you know, sickened very few people in England. I think it was 400 or something. And we don't know whether it sickened any people in this country. And many people gave up meat for a period of time, and that was a shock to the industry, and when Oprah said she was never going to eat another cheeseburger - all this led to panics but it also led to an education. People are forced to pay attention to something that is invisible most of the time. It’s a shame that people who did nothing wrong get hurt in these cases. I'm sure there were lots of apple growers who weren't using Alar and they got hurt. But, for better or worse, these episodes do lead to an increase in public education. There have been attempts since Alar to suggest that that was not an education, that that was all about mythology and all about lies. And I don't think that’s quite true. I think, for better or worse, people did learn something about their food supply through that episode. Even if the reaction was outsized to the health threat, nevertheless important knowledge was gained.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL POLLAN: You’re welcome, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Pollan is author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, and is the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley.