Alar: The Great Apple Scare

Published March 1, 2007

This article is the ninth in a continuing series excerpted from the book Smoke or Steam: A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory and Food Safety Concerns, by Samuel Aldrich, excerpted and abridged by Jay Lehr.

Against a background of a skull and crossbones, overlaid on a red apple, the late Ed Bradley appearing on CBS TVs “60 Minutes” on February 26, 1989 said:

“The most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply is a substance sprayed on apples to keep them on the trees longer and make them look better. That’s the conclusion of a number of scientific experts, and who is most at risk? Children who may someday develop cancer.”

Almost overnight the Alar story seemed to be everywhere: Phil Donahue, the Today Show, Women’s Day, CNN, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, the Washington Post, the New York Times, etc. Actress Meryl Streep announced on TV the formation of Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits.

Enormous Consequences

Within a short time, apple juice and apple sauce were thrown away. Apples were taken out of school lunches, and parents on the border of hysteria called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about risks of cancer to their children.

The publicity campaign was so effective that sales and prices of all apples declined sharply, and 20,000 apple growers in the U.S. suffered substantial financial harm–even the large number who never used Alar.

Farmers went bankrupt. The government spent $9.5 million of taxpayer money to reimburse apple growers.

A consumer group called Citizen Alliance claimed Florida grapefruit contained Alar residue. As a result, tons of grapefruit were left to rot on docks in South Korea in 1989, and 1990 shipments were predicted by some to be reduced by 90 percent.

Growers and exporters suffered great financial loss, and South Koreans were denied a healthful food, all because of a lie. Alar is not even used on citrus. The alarm was a hoax.

All of this occurred because of a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign that was unequaled in the history of environmental activities until global warming fear-mongering surpassed it.

Testing Showed Alar Safe

Alar is the trade name for a compound that was sometimes sprayed on apple trees before apples formed, to reduce early drop, thus extending the harvest season. It also extended the shelf life of apples and improved their color, which we now know increases their nutritional value.

The compound was extensively tested before 1966 and cleared for use by the U.S. government. In laboratory tests, the amount fed to mice before any effect was noted was equivalent to an average adult eating 28,000 pounds of Alar-treated apples each year for 70 years, or a 10-pound infant eating 1,750 pounds per year.

Bogus NRDC ‘Evidence’

In 1986 the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a self-appointed environmental activist group, challenged the safety of Alar, especially for children, and asked EPA to declare Alar an “imminent hazard,” which would have allowed banning it at once.

The NRDC claimed to have scientific evidence showing Alar might cause cancer. The alleged evidence, however, was never published where it could be reviewed by qualified scientists.

EPA set up a “special review” panel–which rejected the NRDC results just three weeks before the 60 Minutes program.

The Scientific Advisory Panel for EPA concluded NRDC’s “evidence” was flawed and rejected it because it did not conform to standards of research and review established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In April 1989, Science magazine condemned the NRDC report.

CBS Ignored Evidence

Alar had in fact been eliminated in baby food three years earlier by Gerber, Heinz, and Beech Nut, and other companies eliminated the use of Alar in other products soon afterwards–because of unfavorable publicity, not because of any safety hazard.

Despite this, according to Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media, the NRDC arranged with CBS to air its report, “Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in our Children’s Food,” on 60 Minutes.

In the book Fear of Food (Free Enterprise Press, 1990), Andrea Arnold characterized NRDC’s Alar scare as “a deliberately misleading environmentalist fund-raising campaign.”

Shameful Collusion

Eight months after the first 60 Minutes presentation on Alar, as a result of an Accuracy in Media report, the public began to hear about the despicable collusion between NRDC and CBS. Few, however, were aware that in 1988 NRDC had hired Fenton Communications, a public relations firm, to plan and carry out the campaign against Alar. Fenton arranged months in advance for the 60 Minutes television segment.

Belatedly, apple growers tried to counter the effect of the Fenton campaign with reassuring statements from scientists, the Department of Agriculture, and EPA itself. But the message was buried under the avalanche of negative publicity generated by the NRDC misinformation project.

Scare Campaigns Continue

Science magazine in 1989 suggested “it may be time to develop appropriate measures so that victims of irresponsible information have redress.” In 1991 Colorado adopted a statute that would make those who cast needless doubt on the safety of perishable agricultural food products subject to a fine up to three times the cost of lost sales.

Apple growers sued in Yakima County, Washington asking for $250 million in damages against CBS, the NRDC, and Fenton Communications, but never received anything.

While most people still recall the historic Alar scare, few recognize the malevolent intentions of the groups involved. Thus, similar unjustified scare campaigns are likely to be repeated.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois. His groundbreaking book for laymen, Smoke or Steam? A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, is available from The Heartland Institute for $12. The table of contents of the book, containing 211 topics, can be viewed at