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The U.S. apple industry plans to call on scientists to help dispel reports questioning the safety of MCP (1-methylcyclopropene), a product widely used on apples around the world to enhance eating quality and storability.

After reports appeared in the media in Taiwan and Europe last winter, the U.S. Apple Association appointed an ad hoc task force to manage the issue.

MCP, sold by AgroFresh, Inc., under the trade name SmartFresh, is applied to apples in storage. Normally, apples soften and ripen in response to ethylene. An MCP treatment is designed to maintain fruit quality by preventing ethylene from binding to the ethylene receptors in the apples. Immediately after treatment, the MCP dissipates, leaving no detectable residue, according to AgroFresh.

“Part of what the task force is hoping to facilitate is a better understanding of what the material is,” said John Rice, task force chair, who operates a fruit growing and packing operation in Gardners, Pennsylvania.

With the provocative headline “Fresh apples, only stored for one year…,” an article in the Times of London last November quoted Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, as saying, “They are using technology to play around with the seasons, and the food may look fresh, but it isn’t. The problem is that companies don’t tell us this is being done.”

The article also said, “Food experts who want supermarkets to sell more locally sourced, seasonal produce say the chemical’s use should be labeled on the fruit.” In addition, it quoted a European Union document referring to impurities in the active ingredient that have tested carcinogenic in rodents.

Guilt by innuendo

“It’s kind of guilt by innuendo,” said Rice, who was chair of USApple during the 1989 Alar crisis. “If you throw in an emotional term like ‘carcinogenic,’ even though they haven’t said the fruit is dangerous, they just leave a bad impression. There’s a natural assumption that if it’s something we treated the fruit with, there would be some sort of residue on the fruit, but the scientific evidence suggests there’s no residue on the fruit.

“Perception can often be more important than reality,” he added. “We have a product here that leaves no residue on the fruit and makes the apples crisp right through the distribution channel, and one of the reasons it was adopted so quickly by the industry is it really does make the product better for the consumer.”

Chris Schlect, president of Northwest Horticultural Council, said it’s thought that the criticisms of MCP were fueled by poor returns for apples in Europe and ill feelings about how the technology can help competing apple-producing areas to deliver a good quality product in a wider marketing window.

“This product has allowed these long-distance shippers to ship good product longer,” he said. “It’s being driven by economic jealousies more than anything else.”

Dave Carlson, president of the Washington Apple Commission and a member of the task force, said he thought the controversy might have been linked to a large carryover of apples from the Southern Hemisphere—where producers use MCP—that overlapped with the 2005 European crop.

Bob Larkin, senior regulatory consultant at AgroFresh, said SmartFresh is registered for use in more than 25 countries around the world, and every regulatory body that has reviewed the data has come to the conclusion that the product is safe to use.

It has been used by producers in the United Kingdom for the past three seasons. A detailed review of the product conducted in the United Kingdom identified trace amounts of two impurities that had been shown to have carcinogenic potential when tested at full strength. However, the review concluded that the materials were in such small amounts in MCP that they posed no risk.

Carlson said there were negative reports also in the press in Taiwan, but Taiwan’s national health organization responded quickly to dispel fears about the product. The incidents appeared to have no impact on export shipments but underlined the need for apple industry groups to collaborate in crisis management so that one person speaks for the whole industry, he said.

SmartFresh is used on other products, including bananas, tomatoes, melons, and avocadoes, but apples tend to become the poster child for such issues, Rice noted.

Consumer satisfaction

Rice said one of the most disappointing experiences for consumers is to buy apples, and find out when they eat them that they are soft, mealy, and dry. One of the reasons that happens is the fruit is not always kept cold at the retail store. SmartFresh can help maintain the firmness of the fruit, even when it’s kept in less than ideal conditions.

“There’s no other thing that we’ve done to apples, in my opinion, that’s had such a marked effect on consumer satisfaction,” he said. “It’s made a huge difference in the quality of the apple that’s been reaching the consumer late in the shipping season.

“We’ve been working for years and years and trying to deliver a crisp, juicy apple year round, and I think we’ve got closer to being able to do that than ever before.”

Rice attributes strong shipments of Washington apples last summer to enhanced fruit quality because of SmartFresh, and said it has also had a positive impact on exported fruit. It has helped exporters to meet the strict quality requirements in the United Kingdom,
for example, where the fruit is closely scrutinized and tested for firmness.

“If it’s half a pound lower pressure, they’ll reject a load with a $4 a box adjustment,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons the industry has jumped to use this material so quickly, even though it’s a very expensive product.”

A SmartFresh treatment costs between 30 and 50 cents a bushel, he said. “That’s a very significant expense. That’s more than we make on apples in most years. We’re doing it to deliver a better apple to the consumer, because if we don’t, we’re not going to be able to sell all of our apples.”

Misinformation

One of the challenges the task force faces is how to stop misinformation from being perpetuated, Rice said. Archives of inaccurate articles can easily be found through an Internet search and used as sources for future articles.

The Times has the offending article on its Web site, though it has been shortened and no longer includes the reference to the impurities. Also missing is a paragraph in the original article that quoted Adrian Barlow, chief executive of English Apples and Pears, as saying that SmartFresh could allow English producers to have apples for sale all the year round.

Rice said the article implied that SmartFresh is being used to con consumers into buying something they thought was fresh but has been in storage for months.

“It ignores the fact that since colonial times and way before, they’ve been storing apples for months and months. They didn’t imagine when they pulled their apples out of their root cellars in March or April that these had just come off the tree, but today, there’s such a small percentage of the consuming public that knows anything about agriculture.”

People are so far removed from the food supply that most people do think that fruit they buy at the grocery store has just been picked, he said.

Task force meeting

The task force met with representatives of AgroFresh in Washington, D.C., on March 15. Sprague said they discussed how AgroFresh and the industry could work together to foster communication and understanding about MCP.

Rice said his experience with the Alar crisis convinced him that the public wouldn’t believe apple growers or AgroFresh when they say that SmartFresh is safe. Task force members are hoping that scientists will write up their research for the public record so that when people do Google searches on the Internet, they find a report by a Cornell scientist, for example, rather than an inaccurate news article.

“One of the things we’re doing is we’re trying to identify people who would be widely regarded by people doing stories in the press as not being biased in any way,” he said. The company is hoping to have the product exhaustively tested by scientists who have no affiliation with AgroFresh to assure the press and public that the product is safe.

Task force members, in addition to Rice, Schlect, and Carlson, are: Lee Peters, New York; Jim Allan, U.S. Export Council; and Scott Smith, USApple chair. USApple staff also are involved.