Food Safety Versus `Crying Wolf'. A FEW BAD APPLES...

THE International Apple Institute used to be a small, quiet trade association that publicized local apple festivals and the like. But no longer. The institute has rushed an $800,000 newspaper ad campaign to calm consumer fears about a chemical used on apples.

Chilean grape growers are still reeling from the losses caused last month when United States inspectors found two grapes containing small amounts of cyanide. The growers are now looking into launching an informational campaign in the US.

In the high-stakes food business, scientific claims and counterclaims are bandied about with increasing frequency. Food safety is rapidly becoming a public issue as well as a marketing tool. And that worries some industry officials. The danger is consumers will become less and less responsive to legitimate safety concerns.

``The two grapes were just too much,'' says Mona Doyle, president of Consumer Network Inc., a Philadelphia market research firm. Consumers are overloaded with potential food threats. ``They just can't deal with it all.''

Adds a buyer for a leading apple processor: ``One of the things that's coming out of all this is the `Wolf! Wolf!' thing. ... Another two or three of these things and I think that people will turn to Page 2.''

The recent apple scare is a typical example. An environmental group called the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a report stating that daminozide, a growth-regulator for apples known as Alar, posed a cancer threat to children. Several TV shows picked up the story. Suddenly, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles schools pulled apples off their lunch menus. Grocery shoppers were switching to organically grown fruit, and apple sales slumped.

Since then, the hysteria has subsided. It was soon reported that Alar is used on only about 5 percent of the crop. Several government agencies issued a joint statement to reassure the public. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said there was nothing to fear.

Several apple industry officials complain that the environmental group that issued the report was merely out for publicity. But several large processors have since used the scare to their own advantage. Many have tried to increase or preserve their share of the market by telling consumers that their growers don't use Alar.

The apple industry is not alone in taking advantage of food-safety concerns. In California, Cesar Chavez's union of migrant workers is trying to pressure grape growers by charging that they use dangerous pesticides on the crop. The European Community banned imports of hormone-treated beef starting in January, citing health concerns. The US charges the move is merely a ploy to restrict American beef imports.

Two years ago, the soybean industry launched a modest $250,000 publicity campaign that highlighted the health dangers of tropical oils, such as palm and coconut oils. These oils are major competitors with soybean oil.

``For the amount of money we invested ... it has gone far beyond what I expected,'' says Dan Reuwee, spokesman for the American Soybean Association.

Government and health reports about that time emphasized the dangers of saturated fats, which are high in tropical oils compared with soybean oil. Since then, most major food processors have agreed to drop or phase out tropical oils in their products. So, two months ago, the Malaysian palm growers struck back with their own newspaper campaign, saying palm oil was safe and citing eight scientific studies as proof.

Several commodity groups have been forced to use advertising in the '80s to combat health concerns. Since 1983, the beef industry has tried to counteract negative publicity about fat. This year the National Dairy Board will spend $61.6 million to promote dairy products. Until the campaign began in 1984, milk consumption had declined, partly because of cholesterol concerns.

The market brawl over food safety probably isn't over, says Chuck St. John of the Washington Apple Commission. ``I think over the next several years there's going to be continuing discussion.''

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