MAY 1982 - VOLUME 3 - NUMBER 5
Del Monte accused of Contaminating Dairy Cattle Feed
Human milk - as well as cows' - became undrinkableby Matthew Rothschild
The Del Monte corporation, through its use of the highly toxic pesticide heptachlor, has recently created a health hazard on Oahu, Hawaii's most populous island, and has crippled the local dairy industry.
Del Monte's heptachlor spraying has prompted a $31 million law suit from local farmers and a state investigation of the company for possible violations of state and federal regulations governing the application of heptachlor.
"It's quite a controversy here," says state senator Benjamin Cayetano, who chairs the senate health committee.
Manufactured by the Velsicol corporation, heptachlor causes cancer in laboratory animals.
Del Monte sprays the pesticide on its Oahu pineapple plantation to prevent ants and bugs from damaging the fruit. The heptachlor from Del Monte's spraying has affected more than just pests, however.
Commercial dairy milk produced on the island showed heptachlor traces at nearly six times the safety limit set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Hawaii's health director informed the public on March 18. Some dairies actually were producing milk with heptachlor levels nine to 15 times above the FDA ceiling, an investigation by Hawaii's senate health committee revealed March 31.
Locally produced beef also was found by the Hawaii department of agriculture to be contaminated with heptachlor. In late March, the beef was withdrawn from the market.
The crowning blow came on April 5, when Hawaii's health director announced that nursing mothers had exceptionally high levels of the toxic pesticide in their breast milk.
Del Monte in Hawaii
Compounding the problem, no one knows precisely how long the excessive levels of heptachlor have been present in commercial products and mother's milk.
"Theoretically, the contamination could have started after July" 1981, says senator Cayetano. "You are talking about eight or nine months" of possible contamination, he points out.
Hawaii's department of health tests milk for heptachlor levels only twice a year. The July, 1981 examination showed no excessive traces of heptachlor. The next test, in early January, revealed the illegal levels of heptachlor.
The health department, however, did not announce a public recall until mid-March. The delay, according to a senate health committee's report, was due to "lack of management control, failure to act on an informed basis, and a lack of appreciation of the need to protect the public interest."
Del Monte's Role
The source of the contamination has been "isolated to certain fields owned by the Del Monte corporation," says Tish Uyehara, information officer for Hawaii's health department.
Heptachlor has traveled from Del Monte's pineapple plantations to commercial and mother's milk by a number of steps.
First, Del Monte sells the pineapple leaves it sprays with heptachlor to dairies for use as feed, commonly called "green chop." Dairy cattle that eat the green chop then pass the toxic substance along in the milk they produce. Mothers, in turn, who drink the heptachlor-contaminated milk, may end up feeding contaminated breast milk to their babies.
"Heptachlor is a very persistent chemical, " explains Jo Ann Semones, press officer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco. "It stays in the fatty tissues."
To prevent heptachlor from entering the food cycle, U.S. and Hawaiian regulations prohibit companies using the pesticide from selling green chop until one year has elapsed since the last spraying. "Apparently, the spraying was a lot more recent than that," in this case, says Uyehara.
Federal and state regulations also limit the quantity of heptachlor that can be sprayed. Del Monte may have violated this requirement as well. It could have "sprayed too much over the limit," says Bob Milne, president of Meadow Gold, one of the state's largest dairies.
Currently the state of Hawaii is investigating Del Monte to see "whether the application was heavier or later" than required, says Roy Matsuura, milk commissioner for the state's department of agriculture.
Del Monte denies any knowledge of how the heptachlor contamination occurred. "We're looking into it," says Mark Gutsche, public affairs officer for the company. "Our position is that the whole heptachlor question has not been answered."
Heptachlor "is a very potent carcinogen" in mice, says Dr. Ian Nisbet, who was a scientific analyst for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when the EPA tried to outlaw the pesticide (see sidebar). It "causes cancer in mice at low levels," Nisbet notes, "between one and five parts per million. Heptachlor also causes "liver damage" in mice and acts as a "neurotoxin, which means it affects the central nervous system," he adds.
On humans, heptachlor's effects are unknown. The data for people is "essentially nonexistent," says Nisbet. Leland Parks, director of pesticide hazard assessment at the University of Hawaii, also acknowledges this lack of information. "There is little or no data available," says Parks, "related to the effects of levels of heptachlor on humans."
Because of the known health hazards in mice, the U.S. government sets the limit for heptachlor in milk at 0.3 parts per million.
When Hawaii's health director, George Yuen, announced the first recall of milk on March 18, he said heptachlor had been found at 1.7 parts per million in milk. A report of March 31 by the state senate committee on health asserts that three dairies were "found to have very high levels of heptachlor (5.0, 2.38 and 2.36 parts per million)."
Dairy cattle on Oahu slaughtered for meat consumption showed levels of heptachlor ranging "anywhere from 1.5 to just above 0.3 parts per million," says Dr. Bert Baird, chief of meat inspection for the Hawaii agriculture department.
In mother's milk, heptachlor levels detected from a random sample of six individuals was three to 10 times higher than the average level found in Oahu mother's milk two years ago, says Hawaii University's Parks, who conducted the test.
"The data," Parks says, "ran from a low of .120 parts per million up to a high of .330 parts per million."
Although "just one" of the six nursing mothers registered a level of heptachlor in breast milk above the .3 recall level for cow's milk, Parks was nevertheless alarmed.
"The reason why it caused some concern," explains Parks, "is that my group did a study of 50 Hawaiian women in 1979 and 1980 and found an average .035 parts per million."
Hawaiian government officials have been downplaying the significance of the heptachlor contamination.
"I do not think the public has been exposed to unusual danger," said George Yuen, then-health director for Hawaii, at the March 18 press conference. (Yuen resigned in late March, under pressure for his handling of the heptachlor issue.) On March 19, governor George Ariyoshi called another press conference to "quiet the concern of the community," and presented a witness who described the contamination as a "non-problem," according to the Honolulu Advertiser.
When the test results on mother's milk were released on April 5, the new director of health, Charles Clark, issued a statement saying, "the value of continued breast feeding outweighs any known health hazard."
Parks isn't as optimistic as the state officials. "If you asked me what I would recommend my wife to do if she was nursing," Parks told Multinational Monitor, "I would urge her to interrupt for a period of time" until more information was available on heptachlor's effects and until the pesticide levels wore off.
Nisbet, who studied heptachlor at the EPA, also disagrees with the state officials' assurances. The heptachlor levels in commercial milk, beef, and mother's milk are "a matter of substantial concern," he says.
Del Monte and the Dairies
While the effects of Del Monte's heptachlor spraying on the health of Oahu citizens may be only speculative, its impact on the local dairy industry is obvious - and devastating.
"The dairy industry is really on the ropes economically," says senator Cayetano.
The health department issued three recalls of dairy products in late March, taking a total of 187,810 gallons off the market, says Roy Matsuura, milk commissioner at the agriculture department. Raw milk costs 801/2 cents per half gallon and wholesales for $1.57, notes Matsuura.
What is more, only 30% of the milk being produced three weeks after the first recall was being cleared for consumption. The other "70% remains off the market" because it shows levels of heptachlor above the 0.3 parts per million ceiling set by the federal government. All this milk is being dumped, Matsuura says.
For the 19 dairies on the island, representing a $30 million a year industry, the heptachlor contamination has been disastrous.
"Hundreds of thousands" of dollars have been lost so far by the Meadow Gold dairy, says Bob Milne, president of Meadow Gold, a subsidiary of Beatrice Foods, the largest food company in the USA. Meadow Gold produces about 10% of Oahu's milk, and processes half of all the milk produced on the island.
"We are losing about $25,000 a day," says Jim Cohune, director of public relations for the Foremost company, which owns a dairy on Oahu. (Foremost, one of the top five dairy companies in the U.S., is a subsidiary of Foremost-McKesson, Inc.) The Oahu Foremost dairy produces 20% of the island's milk, and shares the processing market with Meadow Gold.
The smaller dairies on the island have less capacity to sustain losses than Meadow Gold and Foremosf.
The 50th State Dairy Farmers Cooperative represents a half dozen local dairies and accounts for about 25% of the raw milk produced on the island, according to Paul Devens, a lawyer for the cooperative. The cooperative has lost "hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh raw milk" since the first recall was announced, Devens says.
Another group of five small dairies, which supplies 35% of Oahu's raw milk, is "suffering almost total losses of income," says Howard Glickstein, an attorney for the dairies. At full sales capacity, the group of dairies earns "$1 million a month," says Glickstein.
Holding Del Monte responsible for the heptachlor contamination, the dairies Glickstein represents sued Del Monte on March 25 for $21 million in "general and special damages" and $10 million for "punitive damages," plus "treble damages."
The lawsuit charges that "Del Monte negligently and/or recklessly and wantonly, produced and/or provided the contaminated `green chop"'; that "Del Monte breached implied and/or express warranties that the `green chop' was fit for its ordinary and intended purpose"; and that "Del Monte's conduct was grossly negligent."
The other dairies on Oahu may join in the legal battle against Del Monte.
"We're going to talk to Del Monte to try to get them to admit strict liability," says Devens, for the 50th State Dairy Cooperative. "If it looks like it's fruitless, we'll file suit shortly," Devens claims, though noting the cooperative's preference for a settlement. "The dairies need the money. If we don't work out a settlement, they are going to go under."
Both Meadow Gold and Foremost are also considering suing Del Monte, the companies acknowledge.
Del Monte had no reaction to the first suit, nor to the possibility of additional ones. "If it's in litigation, we don't comment on it," says Mark Gutsche, public affairs officer for Del Monte.
The state of Hawaii, for its part, is conducting an "ongoing investigation" of the heptachlor spraying, says Lyle Wong, chief of the agriculture department's pesticide division, which has primary responsibility for the investigation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, through a "memorandum of agreement," has given "the state primary enforcement over the use provision" on heptachlor, Wong says.
If Hawaii's investigation "turns up violations" in either the quantity or the timing of the heptachlor spraying, says Wong, "it's going to lead to an enforcement action" against the company.
Hawaii's state penalties, however, are not stiff. A civil violation may bring only a warning; at most, "the civil penalty is $1,000 per violation" of pesticide regulations, Wong says. A criminal penalty "for knowing misuse of the pesticide," says Wong, would carry "a $1,000 fine and/or one year imprisonment as a misdemeanor."