JOHNSTON, IOWA — PESTICIDE residues on food are considered a "serious health hazard" by 80 percent of people surveyed last year by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). Six in 10 also say they would switch to a store that promotes "environmentally friendly" products and practices. But if given the chance, will shoppers put their grocery money where their mouths are? Following the Alar scare in 1989, consumer and grocery chain interest in "organically grown" food soared.
"After years of languishing in health food stores and alternative-lifestyle food co-ops, organic foods seemed to have finally made the leap into the big leagues of American retailing," notes the Green Consumer Letter, a Washington, D.C., newsletter.
Today, however, consumer acceptance of organic foods at retail grocery stores has dropped to pre-Alar-scare levels, the newsletter says. And supermarkets are reluctant to deal with small-time organic farmers who can't ensure a supply that will keep shelves stocked the way giant food-processing companies can. Organic products are available in only 13 percent of grocery stores, the FMI reports.
That could change soon. Several food-processing companies, including some industry giants, are testing the market with items like popcorn, tortilla chips, and breakfast cereal made from grain that was never exposed to chemical pesticides.
Supplying the crops is Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. Based in this Des Moines suburb, the company is better known as the world's largest purveyor of seeds to farmers, with sales of $964 million in 60 countries last year.
Three years ago, when making the rounds of the large food processors, Pioneer Hi-Bred executives were repeatedly asked about the impact of chemicals on food safety and the environment.
Sensing an unsatisfied market niche, the company developed "Better-Life Products," in which no chemical pesticides are used during farming, transport, and storage. These are crops like barley, oats, rice, corn, wheat, and soybeans that farmers grow on contract for Pioneer Hi-Bred.
The company sells these crops at a premium to food processors, who can display a Better-Life logo certifying "grown without applying chemical pesticides" on the product label. Pioneer Hi-Bred doesn't claim that Better-Life crops are "organic," since it allows them to be grown with fertilizer.
Testing new markets
Sara Lee Corporation tested the appeal of Better-Life grain in its Wolferman's Deluxe English Muffins in Dallas and the Carolinas. Both locations saw "double digit" sales increases, says Tim Neugent, who manages Pioneer Hi-Bred's Better-Life products. He expects Sara Lee to decide this week whether the increased sales are worth the higher cost of Better-Life grains.
The American Pop Corn Company now puts Better-Life corn in its American's Best variety of Jolly Time popcorn. The product will reach store shelves by this fall. If consumers buy it, then the company will switch other products to Better-Life, spokesman Tom Elsen says.
Makers of farm chemicals, meanwhile, are fuming. There's room in the market for organic products and such, they agree. But they are disturbed that anyone in the food or agriculture industries would try "to create a commercial advantage by playing to a perception that isn't borne out by reality," says Nick Kalm of American Cyanamid Company's agriculture division.
In 1988, the Food and Drug Administration reported that less than 1 percent of fresh foods it tested had pesticide residues that exceeded federal tolerances. And the tolerances are set 100 to 1,000 times lower than the level that caused "no effect" in test animals.
"You would have to eat 3,000 heads of lettuce a day for life to ingest enough pesticide residues to reach the tolerance limits" for the type used on lettuce, adds Christopher Klose of the National Agricultural Chemical Association.
The food companies worry that putting a Better-Life logo on one product would make consumers afraid to buy their other products, virtually all made from crops grown with pesticides.
Better-Life grain and resulting food products are not intended to disparage pesticides, but simply offer a choice to consumers who believe that chemical pesticides are bad for themselves or the environment.
However, plenty of hints are dropped and inconsistencies abound in company statements.
Mr. Elsen calls the United States food supply the world's safest. Yet he claims that "we're doing something for the environment by not using chemicals that might get into the water supply." The American's Best popcorn label mentions "the peace of mind that you've made the right choice - for you and the environment."
Ralston Purina, which puts Better-Life grain in Nature's Course dog food, says on the package that "families today are concerned about their food sources."
Medallion Foods, which is coming out with tortilla chips containing Better-Life corn, states on a sample package that "we are all concerned about polluting the environment and our food supply."
"It's more healthy. That's all there is to it," says Ruben Gamez of Brumwell Flour Mill, an Iowa company which just started using Better-Life grain.
Pioneer Hi-Bred isn't shy about highlighting "consumer uncertainty as to what food products are safe" in a Better-Life brochure. Conclusive scientific evidence about the health risk from pesticides isn't available, Mr. Neugent says, but "perception is reality from a marketing standpoint."
Officially, Pioneer Hi-Bred makes no environmental claims, either. A company pamphlet asks: "Is Pioneer attempting to eliminate the use of crop protection chemicals?" The answer: Those "are a key part of today's agriculture and, when used according to label instructions, have been proven safe."
But included with some Better-Life literature that Neugent hands a reporter are several newspaper clippings about pesticide traces found in drinking water. "The fact of the matter is, chemicals are bad for the environment," Neugent says.
Kalm of American Cyanamid is incredulous at that statement. His company is conducting joint research with Pioneer Hi-Bred to develop corn pesticides. He says Pioneer Hi-Bred is "on thin ice" trying to reconcile that with allegations that chemicals are harmful.
Neugent says Pioneer Hi-Bred, the only major seed company not owned by a chemical company, has told makers of pesticides, "Tough. That is how it's going to be."