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Produce Corner
August 2014

Produce Photo

Thank You Meryl Streep!
By Dennis Linden

I was recently asked by a friend how a longtime Southern California fresh produce professional came to be living in the Pacific Northwest. It was not the first time the question had been posed and I always answer the same: I owe it all to Meryl Streep and to what those in the Washington State apple industry still refer to as Alar Sunday. The person doing the asking, a committed organic consumer, looked at me with puzzlement. It was the same don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about look I have seen on others devoted to a natural foods lifestyle upon hearing this answer. Ah, how quickly history is forgotten by those now living out its consequences...

In February of 1989 I was minding my own business, literally, as the general manager of a fresh produce wholesale company in Los Angeles focused on the business of shipping highly perishable and exotic produce, mostly by air, to foodservice purveyors along the eastern seaboard. Little did I know that the produce industry was about to get a big shake-up caused by one Sunday evening television broadcast or that within six months I would be selling organic apples from an office in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains in the state of Washington.

The broadcast was 60 Minutes, which did a story about the dangers of Alar -- a chemical sprayed on apples to regulate their growth and enhance color. The program, seen by 40 million viewers that night, was based on a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council showing that Alar was a dangerous carcinogen. The story was immediately picked up and disseminated by other major news organizations. Famed actress Meryl Streep became a spokesperson for a group calling for the ban of the chemical by testifying before Congress and on TV talk shows about the dangers of Alar to children’s health. The public panicked: school systems removed apples from lunch programs, supermarkets took them off shelves and Washington apple orchard owners lost millions within a matter of a few months. The maker of Alar, Uniroyal Chemical Co., was ultimately forced to take it off the market.

Organic Apples

The scare was a bit overblown regarding the immediate negative health repercussions of the chemical, i.e. kids were not going to get sick from eating just one apple. However, it is true that Alar had proven to be a long-term carcinogen when consumed over time by lab mice. In several subsequent court cases, all filed by factions of the apple industry, CBS/60 Minutes was totally vindicated of any false reporting. So the worm could not be put back in the apple, so to speak, and the marketplace made an almost immediate correction.

Within a few weeks of that infamous broadcast, I was getting calls from wholesalers around the country wanting to buy organic apples at any price, though it was a category of produce production that they (and I) knew very little about. In fact, I remember reporting back to one NYC wholesaler that demand totally exceeded supply on certified organic apples, but that I had managed to locate an inventory of what was then called “transitional organic” if he was interested. I explained that transitional meant that the apples were being converted from conventional growing practices to organic growing guidelines, which was a three-year process before the fruit could be marketed as Certified Organic. It was obvious that the customer was not listening to this explanation and really only cared if the word “organic” was, in fact, printed on the box. He bought all the transitional organic apples that I could get, which were then air-freighted at an enormous expense. Golden Apples, in more ways than one, flown to the Big Apple! We were all just blindly filling a demand for any box of apples that contained the word “organic” on it.

At that time there was no structured organic apple industry per se, especially compared to the conventionally-grown mega-acreage operations in eastern Washington State that supplied the world with fruit. The few organic apple growers in the region, whose customer base had consisted of small local health food stores, began to get inquiries from national retail buyers looking for quantities of fruit that they were unprepared to supply and had never planned on producing considering the heretofore limited market prospects.

To exacerbate the situation, this huge demand for organic apples peaked by late spring, which was very much the off-season for a crop that was harvested in the fall months. So, while conventional apple growers were caught with millions of pounds of fruit still in storage facilities that had little market value, organic producers had never grown enough apples to develop much of a post-harvest storage system. Not surprisingly, the price of a 40 lb. box of organic apples tripled from $20 to over $60 in just a few weeks!

With this newfound demand it also soon became evident that if organic apple producers were going to be successful in the larger marketplace for the long-term, beyond this overnight popularity, an upgrade in the quality and appearance of their fruit was needed. That required operating under the same system of standardized grades of quality and business practices that the rest of the fresh produce industry already followed under federal guidelines. Standards that had been ignored by the traditional organic retailer.

Organic Apples

By the summer of 1989, the only organic apple broker in Washington State began preparing for the upcoming fall harvest and realized that he would be needing a produce professional who had experience dealing on a national level to operate in the larger marketplace. He advertised for the position in a trade newspaper. I grabbed that opportunity to change lanes from a freeway commute at 1 a.m. through the industrial district of downtown Los Angeles to a two-lane country road and an office in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains overlooking a river of “commuting” salmon. So thank you, Ms. Streep, for the scenery change alone!

That 60 Minutes broadcast perked an national interest in organics and the health food sector in general that has continued to enjoy a steady growth in market share ever since. In less than a year my new Washington employer’s company of six longtime friends, which had operated from a double-wide trailer on an organic blueberry farm for the past 15 years, had moved into an office building in a nearby small town. In six months, the company ballooned to 30 employees to handle the new demand for the company’s fresh and processed-from-fresh organic products.

This new interest in organics went viral very quickly -- long before that word even existed! Eventually it spurred a small natural foods store in Texas to grow into a national supermarket retailer whose success forced every conventional supermarket chain in the country to offer both an organic produce section as well as a natural foods aisle just to compete.

That first apple sales position in Washington State lead to an interesting stint traveling the western states for that burgeoning Texas-based retailer during its very early years as a sort of an organic produce scout. Eventually, I was able to start my own organic apple sales company here in the Northwest. While many conventionally-grown apple shippers in eastern Washington now offer organic fruit programs too, to this day Meryl Steep would have a difficult time getting a restaurant reservation in the region. There are many who still remember the financial sting from Alar Sunday.

Not to worry, Meryl, I will gladly make those dinner arrangements and pick up the tab! You helped pave the way for organics becoming an integral part of most retail produce programs in this country and put me an unexpected career detour that continues to be a very fun ride these many years later. Thank you!