The Alar scare
Today I will tell you a story. This is a true story that took place a quarter of century ago, yet quite topical. I chose this case, one of the first of its kind, because I lived it directly and because it is indicative of a way of doing that has found its followers and still works as well.
We are in 1989 in the United States, the country of the apple. A famous American saying, widely known, and used in all possible ways, as a saying, in humor, in advertising, contre-publicity or policy, which is "an apple a day keeps the doctor away".
The apple is THE quintessential fruit. The apple production is extremely dynamic, one of the largest in the world.
The US consumer, as everywhere in the world at that time, does not question and eat apples every day, as it should be.
However, an event will break the quietness of the US apple eater.
In February 1989, the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), a consumer association, comes at a very famous program, 60 minutes, on the CBS TV station, with the support of the equally famous actress Meryl Streep. The intervention is based on a report of the NRDC, recently released, entitled "Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children's Food". The show is a huge success, with more than 40 million viewers.
The messages are simple and striking, like "this child is going to die because he ate apple pots."
The consequences are devastating, with suppression of apples in canteens, in many restaurant and an impressive drop in sales of the most emblematic fruit of the country. The losses for producers are enormous. "The Alar Scare" and "The Big Apple Scare," are used to speak about this scandal.
The situation quickly spreads to Canada, then to the rest of the world.
That same year, in June, I participated in a study trip with a group of southern France's agricultural advisors to Canada (British Columbia) and to the United States (states of Washington and California). I could verify that the psychosis of the Alar was well established. Every fruit stall indicated "No Alar". Yet one can doubt the veracity of the announcement, since apples on sale in June were from the harvest of the previous year, that is to say, before the scandal broke out. It is therefore likely that most of the apples offered for sale had been sprayed in the orchard.
Alar was a product based on a molecule, daminozide, which effects on the plant, following a spraying in the orchard, allowed a significant improvement in the red coloring of the fruit, and especially a strong improvement in its conservation capacity.
Its use was then extremely widespread in many countries around the world.
As with all chemicals used in agriculture, many studies were still carried on, even after approval, to continue work on its safety.
In our case, a study (the one relied NRDC), showed a risk of cancer development in laboratory animals, due to the consumption of compotes, juice and apples sprayed with this product.
I will not go into the details of the case, which are quite complex, but in summary, the studies carried out after this scandal, showed or confirmed several things:
- The molecule is modified after cooking and the risk worsens. There is therefore a danger somewhat higher for compotes.
- The product can actually cause a problem. It is true that there is a dose from which a danger exists.
- To achieve the dangerous dose, and that the risk of developing a cancer exists, a person should consume at least 20,000 liters (5,000 gallons) of apple juice daily for many years !!!!
The argument of the NRDC was based on an unspecified risk. Indeed, at any time of the debate the concept of dose was raised, at least in the first weeks, those that caused the panic.
In other words, a pressure group based a deliberately destructive communication on a devious truth. Cancer risk exists, yes for sure, but it is impossible to reach the dangerous dose without drowning before.
Under these conditions, all foods are dangerous and it becomes essential to prohibit all forms of food!!!
The company Uniroyal spent a fortune trying to rehabilitate its product, in vain. The apple market marked a sudden stop. US apple growers demanded (unsuccessfully) losses amounted at that time to $ 100 million. But the reality is that the market returned to normality quite quickly, and finally the direct real economic impact was quite limited.
This case, well known among apple growers, is one of the first of its kind. It is in any case the first that I have experienced in my professional career.
The consumer backlash is simply explained by the visceral fear of poisoning. Yet Americans consumers of the time were used to consume daily a lot of much more dangerous products as apples treated with Alar. And there was no problem.
It is because no one had introduced the doubt and fear in their minds.
Doubt and fear are formidable weapons in politics and commercial marketing.
Recent history is full of examples, sometimes dramatic, which demonstrate this. To stay in the agricultural world and take only two current examples, it is the method chosen by opponents to GMOs, and by the organic lobbies with the support of political power to try to ban non-organic pesticides.
Although numerous studies, even the most objective and the most recent ones show the contrary, it is almost impossible to fight against doubt.
In front of simplistic arguments and manipulating fear, science is always helpless. Indeed, the argument has an immediate effect, introducing doubt or fear in the minds of the audience. As for science, it takes weeks, months or years to demonstrate the lie.
This is the power of communication, well known to all extremist, populist and other dictators. Just find the words that strike, and one can swallow any kind of message, even wrong. We can even convince the public that what is totally wrong, is the truth.
Look around you. How many messages of the same type do you receive daily?
Many, and the worst part is that you don't realize it. We only realize that on topics that we dominate, and for the rest, we are lulled by clearly oriented discourses.
Some call it manipulation, others propaganda, and others, advertising. The most important thing is to get the public favorable opinion.
So do not let the merchants of fear grab your free will. Do not be afraid when people talk about chemistry, GMOs or pesticides.
Seek information, and you will see that there is no reason to be afraid.
But beware, require thorough and impartial studies. Don't let anybody fool you, either one way or the other.
I'm not saying that pesticides are harmless or that the risks of GMOs are well known and mastered. I only mean that we should not oppose everything, just because some speakers are trying to take your good judgment.
Don't be passive, but don't deny that science can do its job. Scientific progress is essential. What is good today will be bad tomorrow, and vice versa.
Only technical evolution and science are able to give us the tools to the progress of humanity.
Don't let that a few twist minded illuminated could block this vital process. A civilization that doesn't go ahead inevitably disappears.
I invite you to read the following short document on the subject: "The Great Apple Scare: Alar, 20 years later" by William P. Kucewicz, published in 2009 by ACSH / American Council on Science and Health, and freely available on the internet on the following link:
I just copy the summary, available on the following link: http://acsh.org/2009/02/340/
“A cancer scare in early 1989 caused millions of consumers throughout the country to stop buying and eating apples and apple products. The fear was that apples were being sprayed with a cancer-causing chemical. Children, in particular, were thought to be at especially high risk. (Rosen 1990, Sewell 1989) The case remains to this day one of the supreme examples how a combination of environmentalists, “public interest” lawyers, publicists, and members of the news media can foist a bogus health scare on an unwitting public.
Now, on the twentieth anniversary of “The Great Apple Scare,” the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) means to recall the events that led up to the mass hysteria over apples and explore some of its many ramifications in hopes of preventing another fabricated crisis from fooling a too-gullible public in the future.”
You also may have a look to the following video, of the ACSH: