Wednesday, July 23, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Food Processors Ask State For Regulations On Toxins In Fertilizer - - Industrial Waste Puts `Public Trust' At Risk

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

An association of 75 Northwest food-processing companies wants Washington state to regulate the practice of using industrial-waste products - some of which contain toxic substances - in the production of fertilizer.

Craig Smith, vice president for environmental affairs of the Northwest Food Processors Association, made the request in a memo to Jim Pendowski, director of solid-waste programs for the Department of Ecology.

The processors association is exploring the possibility of regulations with officials in Oregon and Idaho as well, Smith said.

The group is the only trade association representing food processors in the three states, and its members do about $6 billion in annual sales, Smith said.

Member companies, which pack or process most of the major fruit and vegetable crops in the region, include J.R. Simplot and Ore-Ida Foods of Boise, Lamb-Weston of the Tri-Cities, Nalley's Fine Foods of Tacoma, Ocean Spray Cranberries of Aberdeen, Continental Mills of Seattle and Tim's Cascade Style Potato Chips of Auburn.

"The Northwest Food Processors Association believes that the practice of using industrial byproducts to produce fertilizer should be regulated by the departments of Ecology and Agriculture," said Smith's July 17 memo to Pendowski. "While using industrial byproducts may serve an environmentally sound purpose, these products should meet a risk-based standard prior to being licensed for sale."

Smith urged the two departments to work with the fertilizer industry and interest groups to write "model legislation" that would set such standards. Smith stressed that the association is convinced that fertilizers now being used in the state pose no threat to human health.

"Our No. 1 concern and issue is we have a huge public trust, and that is we deliver products that they can be absolutely sure are safe," Smith said. "And they are. But we want to be sure someone out there doesn't make a stupid mistake that puts us at risk."

Last Friday, Pendowski told a meeting of government officials and concerned farmers that the department planned to recommend legislation to regulate fertilizers, but it's unclear what the rules would be.

In stories July 3 and 4, The Seattle Times reported that fertilizers are so poorly regulated that substances containing such hazardous materials as cadmium, lead, arsenic, radioactive elements and dioxins are sometimes included in their manufacture. The articles also told the stories of farmers in the Quincy area in Eastern Washington who believe their fields were poisoned by fertilizers containing hazardous materials.

There is no conclusive evidence that including toxic substances in fertilizers is bad for people who eat the resulting crops, nor can regulators ensure the practice is safe. Some scientists are particularly concerned about the long-term effects of heavy metals accumulating in the soil.

Smith said a study by Allan Felsot, an associate professor and agricultural extension specialist at Washington State University, convinced him there is no danger to consumers at present. The study, requested by the food processors and done by Felsot as part of his university duties, reported that government data show the dietary intake of cadmium, lead and arsenic had declined during 1970-91, suggesting that heavy metals in fertilizer had little effect on plants grown with them.

One of the major findings of The Times articles was that few farmers knew that dangerous heavy metals were contained in some fertilizers because there is no requirement that manufacturers disclose that information.

Smith said the food processors first became aware that industrial byproducts were being used in some fertilizers when it learned early this year that The Times was looking into the practice.

"Once aware, we wanted to know how it was done, who was doing it and what the issues were," Smith said.

He said the association unanimously approved the request that the Ecology and Agriculture departments regulate fertilizers. "There was no dissent on this," he said.

Links to The Seattle Times series "Fear in the Fields" are on The Seattle Times Today's News Web site at:


`Fear in the Fields' reprints available

Reprints of "Fear in the Fields," a recent Seattle Times investigation of the recycling of hazardous wastes into fertilizer, are available free at Seattle Times offices and for a nominal cost by mail.

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