(Dec. 6) As news of the Food and Drug Administration’s testing of lettuce, bottled water and organic milk contaminated with traces of a poisonous substance circulated throughout the country, produce organizations were working to reassure their members that the agency’s findings show no proven harmful effects on people.

The FDA Nov. 26 announced the results of its first phase of testing for perchlorate, a rocket fuel chemical that was first discovered as polluting the Colorado River region, which supplies water for winter California and Arizona lettuce production.

NO ISOLATED PROBLEM

Until now, the perchlorate issue had been a concern primarily for the desert lettuce grower-shippers, said Hank Giclas, vice president of science and technology for the Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.

“The study shows we’re seeing that New Jersey and other areas have this problem, as well,” he said.

“The fact that the FDA samples are showing trace levels of perchlorate throughout the country suggests this may not be the problem that certain environmental activists were trying to suggest.”

From December 2003 to Aug. 19, the FDA tested 150 samples of conventional and organic iceberg, red leaf, green leaf and romaine lettuce at packing sheds in places such as Gadsen, Ariz., and Yuma, Ariz.; the California cities of Brawley, El Centro, Salinas and Santa Maria; Atascosa, Austin and Hondo, Texas; Blairstown and Cedarville N.J.; and Belle Glade, Fla.

After removing the outermost leaves of each lettuce head, the FDA found an average 7.76 parts per billion of perchlorate in iceberg lettuce, 10.7 parts per billion in green leaf, 11.6 parts per billion in red leaf and 11.9 parts per billion in romaine.

Since the testing covers only a limited number of food categories and a limited number of products in those categories, the FDA stated the results are only exploratory.

The agency noted the findings don’t fully address variations from one production area to another.

“I don’t think the last chapter has been written on what kind of risk, if any, perchlorate poses,” said Kathy Means, vice president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

Like Western Growers, PMA has taken calls from news reporters and is working to keep its members updated on the issue.

“The FDA was very clear and correct in saying that consumers should not change their diets at all,” she said. “They should still eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.”