NEW YORK CITY has become a focal point in the battle by the United Farm Workers of America to limit use of pesticides by growers of California table grapes. Several of the city's largest supermarket chains, representing 126 stores, have moved recently to limit or halt grape sales. The grocers' action is in support of the union's contention that the pesticides cause health problems in farm workers and could threaten the well-being of consumers. The boycott is the culmination of five years of efforts by the union and its president, Cesar Chavez.
Almost all domestic table grapes come from California. New York City is the second-largest market for them, after Los Angeles.
Store officials say the grape issue is part of a broader problem, and that they are aiming to send a message. ``We have to draw the line someplace with all the pesticides being used by the farmers,'' says John Catsimatidis, chief executive of Red Apple Companies, which owns several store chains. He questions whether grapes are any more harmful for consumers than other produce exposed to pesticides. Still, he compares concerns about them to the recent controversy over the chemical Alar, which apple growers agreed to stop using in the face of public concern.
Bruce Obbink, president of the California Table Grape Commission, representing growers, says there is no proof of harmful effects. ``I say, `C'mon Cesar, you make these charges - somebody has got to have tested grapes and show some results.' Nobody finds something.''
He says that Mr. Chavez is using the pesticide issue to force unionization of the 60,000 California grape pickers. ``It is extremely unfortunate that supermarkets let themselves be bullied around by an economic terrorist,'' Mr. Obbink says.
Union officials concede that their effort to get growers to allow open elections among the grape pickers is a factor in the boycott, but they insist the pesticide issue is real. Union vice-president Arturo Rodriguez says California has documented serious health problems in grape-growing communities.
The union contends that five chemicals sprayed on - or injected into - the grapes are dangerous: Captan, methyl bromide, phosdrin, parathion, and Dinoseb. Union leaders also argue that consumers may face a long-term risk from the pesticide residues that remain on the grapes.
``There is ample evidence that there is a problem with pesticides,'' Mr. Rodriguez says, although the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture say it has not been proved. ``Both agencies have been proven wrong time and again on their testing methods. They test right now less than 1 percent of all the produce in our country. Of over 600 chemicals used in agriculture, they have only properly tested 20 or so.''
Some stores are banning California table grapes completely, while others will institute periodic bans and restrict advertising to foster awareness of the issue.