Apples to Apples—Here's Why Europe's Fruit Is Safer Than Ours

Europe's food regulators don't consider pesticides innocent until proven guilty.

(Photo: Georgio Majno/Getty Images)

Apr 24, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

One bad apple really can spoil the whole bunch.

Though the valuable piece of produce can be stored for almost a year, finding ways to prevent rot that spreads to other apples is important to conventional producers, which is why they often rely on what’s known as plant growth regulators. The chemical treatments help slow the breaking down of apples, or the forming of the dreaded “storage scald,” which is like a sunburn that causes blackening or browning of the fruit's tender skin.

But the Environmental Working Group (EWG) says a growth regulator called DPA, which was evaluated for its safety as far back as the 1960s and was reviewed again in 1998, may not be as safe as previously thought.

What's prompting the warning now? A 2012 European ban on DPA on apples and pears just took effect last month. The European Food Safety Authority, which evaluates the risk of pesticides, says carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines can form if DPA is combined with a source of nitrogen—a gas that can be present during storage or when the fruit is processed.

When European authorities asked DPA manufacturers to test for data that showed whether or not nitrosamines formed, the industry provided one study but couldn’t determine if the compound formed when DPA broke down.

That wasn’t good enough for the European Union. It reduced the allowable levels of DPA on imports to 0.1 ppm. That move could cost U.S. apple growers $20 million in exports, because U.S. apples average 0.42 ppm of DPA—four times the new European limit.

To put those numbers in perspective, the Environmental Protection Agency allows maximum concentrations of DPA at 10 ppm for apples—so most American apples come in at a fraction of that. That's why the U.S. Apple Association says the EWG’s warning is misleading and maintains that use of DPA is extremely safe and well below any levels of concern.

“The decisions the EU made were not made on findings of risk,” said Wendy Brannen, spokesperson for the U.S. Apple Association. “It was on gaps in the data that was filed during the re-registration process. We’re never excited to lose an export partner. All food safety rules need to be grounded in science.”

Brannen points to a study done by Dr. Robert Krieger at the University of California, Riverside, that shows an average five-year-old child could eat 154 servings of apples a day without negative impact from pesticide residues, based on USDA data.

EWG senior scientist Sonya Lunder said the laws require the EPA to periodically reexamine pesticides previously deemed as safe and apply new understanding and information about chemical toxicity as it emerges. The agency hasn’t done that since the last time DPA was registered in 1998.

“The question we have is, 'Is this safe?' ” said Lunder. “When the EU took another look at DPA, they realized they couldn’t ensure that consumers would be completely protected from risk, and in this case, it’s cancer. Europe has stepped away from this chemical completely.”

DPA is not the only chemical of concern, Lunder said. Apples have topped EWG’s annual "Dirty Dozen" list for four years, ever since USDA data showed myriad examples of pesticide residue on tested fruit. EWG’s 2014 list will be released next week, and the U.S. Apple Association is bracing for it. Today it put out its own "Delicious Dozen" list—a strategy that's as American as apple pie.

Until DHA's potential link to nitrosamines is ruled out, Lunder said consumers should wash their produce and consider buying organic apples.

"That will definitely reduce your consumption of DHA and any breakdown products," she said.