KETCHUM — Idaho potato industry leaders fear they may be adversely affected by Europe’s recent decision not to renew certification of a chemical used globally to inhibit tubers from sprouting in storage.
Chloropropham, also known as CIPC, is the world’s most popular potato sprout inhibitor, applied by farmers since 1952. It’s also been used as a plant growth regulator and herbicide in alfalfa, onion and sugar beet production.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency renewed CIPC for another 15 years at about the same time as Europe opted against renewal earlier this summer. Nonetheless, chemical company representatives anticipate Europe’s decision will have ripple effects for American farmers.
Europe is a relatively small market for U.S. spud exports, but global quick-service restaurants and other major customers may wish to enact consistent policies covering everywhere they do business, explained Addie Waxman, global director of research and development with 1,4 Group.
“I think that pressure will come from their customers: The McDonald’s and Burger Kings of the world will want to have a global message about the chemicals on their product,” said Waxman, whose company distributes CIPC. “They can’t have customers in Europe having a certain chemical regime and then customers in the U.S. having a completely different one. If they’re a family friendly restaurant, they need to be sending out a similar message to all of their consumers.”
Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, said the U.S. potato industry is paying close attention to the developing story, which could force farmers to switch to less effective, more costly alternatives.
“It is a concern because that has a big impact on storage,” Muir said. “If that goes away, we have to have some alternative to help potatoes last or you don’t get potatoes year round.”
As part of the standard renewal process, a task force comprising three applicants involved in manufacturing the chemical was asked to submit supplemental paperwork to the European Food Safety Authority in April of 2016. Nonetheless, on June of 2017, the authority identified 23 “data gaps” in the application.
Terry Kippley, who oversees CIPC registration for Aceto Life Sciences LLC, estimates it will take seven years to produce the science to address the authority’s concerns. He explained the European model “assumes potatoes are eaten dirty and uncooked.”
Citing incomplete product data, Europe opted against renewing CIPC in July. Companies will have to cease European sales by Jan. 8, 2020, and growers in Europe will have a grace period of until Oct. 8, 2020 to use the product.
“We have another season for CIPC in Europe of commercial use to understand the path forward and the impact on imports,” Kippley said.
Complicating matters, Kippley said, is that Europe has provided no answers regarding the maximum residue limits of CIPC that will be allowed on imported potatoes. The default MRL would be 0.01 mg/kg.
About 75 percent of European growers use CIPC. Even after they turn to other sprout inhibitors, such as mint oil, Kippley said CIPC chemical residue from storage facilities could pose a lingering problem.
“You’re going to have some CIPC that’s in the walls and the floor, and if you put potatoes in there, you’re going to have some kind of residue that’s going to get on the potatoes,” Kippley said.
Waxman referenced an analysis of McDonald’s french fries purchased from an Idaho restaurant, which still contained CIPC above the default MRL level, despite having been processed and fried.
Waxman said Europe has adopted a policy called the “precautionary principle,” seeking unrealistic guarantees that chemicals would pose no ill effects.
“If Europe wants to go back to farming methods from 1742, fine, let them go and do that, but the rest of us want to farm and feed the world,” Waxman said. “Their restrictions are imposed on the rest of us.”
Not everyone who follows the U.S. potato industry views Europe’s decision as bad news. A Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization called the Environmental Working Group has consistently included conventional potatoes on its Dirty Dozen list. The occurrence of pesticide residue in testing of produce is a major criteria for inclusion on the EWG’s list.
“Generally, most if not all conventional potatoes are sprayed with some form of sprout inhibitor. Chloropropham, also known as CIPC, was found on nearly all samples taken in 2015 and 2016,” an EWG spokeswoman said via email. “Generally, the level of chloropropham is higher than other pesticides, except for some fungicides.”
Bill Freese, science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, based in Washington, D.C., believes the Europeans have taken a more “science-based” approach than EPA. Freese said the Europeans were especially concerned that CIPC breaks down into a potentially carcinogenic chemical when exposed to heat.
“I’m seeing generally more concern with chemicals in the food supply, and I think that’s legitimate,” Freese said, adding chemicals pose the greatest risk for those who manufacture and apply them. “I think the message to farmers is you’ve got to look around for alternatives.”