Chemical found on U.S. apples banned in Europe over safety concerns

U.S. apple growers and EPA say it’s safe to use

April 24, 2014

WBEZ/Monica Eng
European authorities have questioned the safety of using diphenylamine on apples in storage. Last month, EU regulators passed new tolerance levels for diphenylamine on imported apples. Most U.S. apples exceed those levels.

The European Union has banned a chemical commonly found on non-organic U.S. apples due to safety concerns, according to a new analysis by advocacy organization Environmental Working Group.

The compound in question is called diphenylamine (DPA) and it’s used to keep apples fresh in storage. Tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2010 (the most recent round) found DPA on 80 percent of U.S. apples.

Since 2008 European food authorities have been looking at the possibility that DPA could produce carcinogenic nitrosamines and other harmful byproducts when it interacts with other chemicals while in storage. In 2012, regulators concluded that makers of DPA had not proven the safety of the pesticide and banned it for use on EU apples and pears.

Last month, European regulators set DPA tolerance limits at .1 parts per million for all apple imports. The rule imposes a de facto ban on most American apples, whose average DPA concentration, in 2010, was found at .42 parts per million. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set DPA concentration limits for U.S. apples at 10 parts per million.

From WBEZ Chicago, Chewing the Fat is a weekly podcast with food journalists Louisa Chu and Monica Eng. Together they tackle cooking, dining, culture food policy, culinary characters and more.

Today, Wendy Brannen, director of Consumer Health & Public Relations at the U.S. Apple Association, told WBEZ that “all U.S. apples are safe and healthy for all U.S. consumers.”

“The decisions made by the EU were not based on specific findings of risk,” she said. “It was rather an assessment that certain data were not provided in the re-registration process. It is my understanding that they have since been able to gather some of that data and they still have not found there to be any safety issues…Here, in the U.S., DPA usage is highly regulated. We are well below the tolerances that are set [by EPA] and there is no safety issue.” 

EWG’s senior scientist Sonya Lunder said Thursday in a statement:

“While it is not yet clear that DPA is risky to public health, European Commission officials asked the questions that the chemicals’ makers could not answer. The EC officials banned outright any further use of DPA on apples cultivated in the European Union until they are confident it is safe. Europe’s action should cause American policymakers to take a new look at this chemical.” 

Brannen says the European market is worth about $1.5 million a year in U.S. apple exports  (about 1.7 percent of total US apple exports) and acknowledged that the ban was “of concern.”
“This is something that I’m sure our industry will look at and consider if we need to make any changes,” she said. “But those changes would have nothing to do with a safety or quality issue, just a matter of ‘is there something we need to do to work more symbiotically with the EU’.” 

The U.S. EPA told WBEZ earlier this week that the agency re-evaluated DPA in September 1997 and decided that the current EPA standards met “reasonable certainty of no harm.” The agency says that DPA would be examined as part of its ongoing review program, but it had no timetable for that process.

A statement from EPA included this response: “If evidence arises to challenge the safety of this registered pesticide, EPA will take action.”

DPA has been registered for use in the U.S. since 1962 to prevent “storage scald” or blemishes that can develop in storage and affect other apples in the container. Brannen says it “helps us...to properly store the apples so that they come out fresh, crisp and tasty just like when they went into storage. From that point of view it is a very necessary compound for us to use and something we use for a specific purpose.” 

On Thursday, EWG president Ken Cook sent a letter to the head of the EPA’s pesticide office urging it to “halt the use of DPA on U.S. fruit until a rigorous analysis by EPA of the chemical can prove that it poses a reasonable certainty of no harm to consumers.” 

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing the Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org