With the harvest underway, Jon Alegria figures he’ll pack more than 400 million apples from this year’s crop by mid-November, relying on a widely used chemical to keep them looking fresh for months.
Before sending them to warehouses, Alegria will coat roughly half of his apples with diphenylamine, or DPA, to prevent scald that would make the fruit turn brown or black.
“If you get that, nobody’s going to buy it,” said Alegria, 36, an apple grower from Tieton, Wash., calling the chemical “a necessary tool.”
In Washington state, growers boast that their apples are the best in the world. But that view is far from unanimous: Fearing possible ill health effects from the chemical, Europeans want nothing to do with them.
It’s another example of the wide gulf separating the United States and the European Union when it comes to food safety.
While the U.S. government says that DPA is safe, the European Commission in 2012 banned its use on apples and other fruit grown in the 28 EU nations. In March, the commission put into effect strict new DPA residue limits on imported apples, effectively blocking anything from the United States besides organic apples.
Convinced that their product has been unfairly maligned, U.S. growers now want to gain more access to the vast European market as part of the Obama administration’s ongoing trade talks with the EU, set for a seventh round on Sept. 29.
It won’t be easy, with apples stirring just one of many food fights between the two economic giants.
Europeans object to many common American practices, including giving drugs to animals to make them leaner, rinsing chickens in chlorine and mixing burley tobacco with additives.
Responding to the European objections, the U.S. government in June sent a letter that said there’s no need for consumers to worry.
Treating apples with DPA “is safe and does not present a health risk of concern for the U.S. food supply,” Jack Housenger, who heads the office of pesticide programs for the Environmental Protection Agency, said in the letter to the European Food Safety Authority.
Backers of DPA say the chemical has been targeted for criticism for unscientific reasons.
Mark Powers, Executive Vice President of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima, Wash., said DPA is both safe and “good to use.” He said apple growers now want U.S. negotiators to insist on greater access to European markets to make sure Europeans don’t gain an upper hand.
“We’re very concerned that the U.S. is going to open up and liberalize more for European products and we will not be able to export into the EU,” Powers said.
Some environmental groups want the United States to follow Europe’s lead, with DPA now used on roughly 80 percent of all U.S. apples.
While the federal government says the chemical is of low toxicity and not likely to cause cancer, critics say that more testing should be done.
“This is a provocative move by the European government,” said Sonja Lunder, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a health- and environmental-research group.
She said it would be a mistake for trade negotiators to push for “the lowest common denominator.” She predicted that it would be tough for the EU to agree to any demands of U.S. apple growers anyway. “I don’t get how you sell that to your people,” she said.