With the harvest underway, Jon Alegria figures he’ll pack more than 400 million apples from this year’s crop by mid-November, relying on a widely used chemical to keep them looking fresh for months.
Before sending them to warehouses, Alegria will coat roughly half of his apples with diphenylamine, or DPA, to prevent scald that would make the fruit turn brown or black.
“If you get that, nobody’s going to buy it,” said Alegria, 36, an apple grower from Tieton, Wash., calling the chemical “a necessary tool.”
In Washington state, growers boast that their apples are the best in the world. But that view is far from unanimous: Fearing possible ill health effects from the chemical, Europeans want nothing to do with them.
It’s another example of the wide gulf separating the United States and the European Union when it comes to food safety.
While the U.S. government says that DPA is safe, the European Commission in 2012 banned its use on apples and other fruit grown in the 28 EU nations. In March, the commission put into effect strict new DPA residue limits on imported apples, effectively blocking anything from the United States besides organic apples.
Convinced that their product has been unfairly maligned, U.S. growers now want to gain more access to the vast European market as part of the Obama administration’s ongoing trade talks with the EU, set for a seventh round on Sept. 29.
It won’t be easy, with apples stirring just one of many food fights between the two economic giants.
Europeans object to many common American practices, including giving drugs to pigs to make them leaner, rinsing chickens in chlorine and mixing burley tobacco with additives.
Responding to the European objections, the U.S. government in June sent a letter that said there’s no need for consumers to worry.
Treating apples with DPA “is safe and does not present a health risk of concern for the U.S. food supply,” Jack Housenger, who heads the office of pesticide programs for the Environmental Protection Agency, said in the letter to the European Food Safety Authority.
Backers of DPA say the chemical has been targeted for criticism for unscientific reasons.
Mark Powers, executive vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima, Wash., said DPA is both safe and “good to use.” He said apple growers now want U.S. negotiators to insist on greater access to European markets to make sure Europeans don’t gain an upper hand.
“We’re very concerned that the U.S. is going to open up and liberalize more for European products and we will not be able to export into the EU,” Powers said.
Some environmental groups want the United States to follow Europe’s lead, with DPA now used on roughly 80 percent of all U.S. apples.
While the federal government says the chemical is of low toxicity and not likely to cause cancer, critics say that more testing should be done.
“This is a provocative move by the European government,” said Sonja Lunder, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a health and environmental research group.
She said it would be a mistake for trade negotiators to push for “the lowest common denominator.” She predicted that it would be tough for the EU to agree to any demands of U.S. apple growers anyway. “I don’t get how you sell that to your people,” she said.
Under the new European limit, no apples can be imported if they contain more than .01 part per million of DPA. Lunder said U.S. apples have a concentration that’s roughly four times higher, at .42 parts per million.
The EU did not find evidence that DPA had caused harm. But it acted after concluding that there was insufficient data from pesticide producers to show that DPA applied to fruit would not break down into nitrosamines, a family of carcinogens.
In April, the Washington State Department of Agriculture said the new rule would close the European market for all conventionally grown U.S. apples. State officials say it could result in lost sales of up to $25 million per year.
“In my opinion, I have no doubt about their safety,” said Washington state Agricultural Director Donald Hover. “For us, we’re the No. 1 producer of apples in the United States and we produce close to 60 percent of all the apples that are grown in the United States. So any kind of restrictions in the European market or any other market are going to have an effect on us.”
Wendy Brannen, director of consumer health and public relations for the Virginia-based U.S. Apple Association, said that U.S. apple growers abide by “rigorous and reliable” regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency. She said DPA helps both reduce storage scald and prevent rotting.
“Our priority is to assure consumers that U.S.-grown apples are safe and that DPA is used sparingly and safely,” Brannen said.
DPA was first registered as a pesticide with the federal government in 1947. When the EPA reviewed it 16 years ago, the agency said that dietary exposure to the pesticide residues in foods “is within acceptable limits.” The agency said the greater risk is to workers who handle DPA. It advised them to wear chemical-resistant gloves and long-sleeved shirts and pants to minimize exposure.
In a letter to the agency in April, Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook said that DPA should be banned in the U.S. pending the results of a new comprehensive investigation. In the past, he said, researchers have discovered that pesticides once thought to be safe were found to be toxic, citing arsenic as an example.
“The American public deserves the same level of protection as Europeans from pesticide risks,” Cook wrote in his letter.
The group said it was not satisfied with the EPA’s most recent assurances that DPA is safe, saying a more thorough analysis is still warranted. Among other things, the group wants the EPA to insist that DPA manufacturers collect and disclose data showing whether toxic chemicals can form when raw fruits coated with DPA are stored for long periods or processed into juices and sauces.
The Obama administration is getting pressure from members of Congress to side with U.S. apple growers, too.
Nine senators, led by Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington state and Republican Mike Crapo of Idaho, wrote a letter in November to U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman, complaining that apple and pear exports to Europe already had declined by 73 percent over the past five years. The letter said that EU food rules on pesticides and additives often “diverge” from the U.S. science-based approach and urged the Obama team to make it easier to sell U.S. agriculture products in Europe.
Alegria, the president of CPC International Apple Co., began harvesting his apples in early August and expects to wrap up by Nov. 15. He said he’s expecting to pack at least 4 million boxes this year, each containing an average of 100 apples: Honeycrisp, Fuji, Gala, Red Delicious and others. He said that not all varieties require DPA, but he expects to use the chemical on 45 to 50 percent of his apples this year. Only 10 percent of his apples are organic.
Alegria, a second-generation apple grower who’s been in the business for 18 years, said there are two ways to apply the chemical: either by drenching the apples or by using a “fogging process.” He said that coating the apples with DPA can allow them to be stored from eight months to a year after harvest.
While apple growers in the U.S. rely on science, Alegria said, he thinks the European system “is a different market” with different concerns.
“This is a tough way to put it, but I’m going to say it’s media-based,” he said. “The concept of a perceived problem is actually worse than the actual problem.”
He said the disputes over food issues with Europe have made it difficult for consumers to understand what foods they can eat, but he has no doubt that U.S. apples are safe.
“Nobody’s gotten sick,” Alegria said. “The biggest thing with DPA is it’s a safe product _ it’s been scientifically proven to be safe. That’s the big thing.”
In the meantime, apple growers face a long wait in knowing whether the trade rules will change.
When Obama announced in February 2013 his plan to expand trade with Europe, administration officials said they hoped to wrap up talks on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, by the end of 2014.
While the next round of talks are set for Sept. 29-Oct. 3 in Washington, D.C., EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht told reporters last week that political changes in the European Union and the November elections in the United States have put any big decisions on hold.
“Let’s be realistic: An agreement on TTIP, in the best of all worlds, would be at the end of next year,” he said.