Slandering The Salad


April 07, 1991|By ROB KASPER

The Colorado effort to legislate kindness toward fruit and vegetables has me wondering.

The legislation, passed this week by the Colorado House and sent to the governor, is a reaction to the downturn in apples sales following the Alar scare of 1989.

According to wire stories coming out of Denver, the bill enables producers of perishable agricultural products to sue anyone who maliciously or negligently disparages their goods.

I take that to mean that if you insult fruits and vegetables in Colorado, it can cost you.

My question is, how will they know?

How will the fruit and vegetable police determine what is an insult and what is a compliment?

It has been my experience, that a remark that one eater regards as belittling, another often regards as admiring.

Take for instance, Brussels sprouts. If I were to say that this legislation has "all the appeal of a bowl of Brussels sprouts," would that be a put-down or praise?

I happen to hate Brussels sprouts. But members of the Brussels sprouts fan club, who regularly send me mail, regard the very mention of the vegetable's name as poetry.

One Brussels sprout groupie even sent me a snapshot of a Brussels sprout plant growing in his back yard.

To my correspondent, this Brussels sprout pinup is inspirational.

To me, the snapshot is as a form of appetite control. After I look at the photo, I don't feel like eating.

And what of okra? If I were to say that "her lips were as soft as boiled okra" would that be enticing or revolting?

It depends, I think, on whether you regard okra as a vegetable you want to spend the rest of your life with, or as one you wouldn't let past the porch.

Even if the fruit and vegetable police can uncover statements that are definitely disparaging, they will have to establish who is being insulted.

If I say that the sponsor of this legislation, Colorado Representative Steve Acquafresca, displayed "all the brainpower of a rutabaga," which party would be disparaged? The state representative for being compared to a vegetable? Or the vegetable for being linked to a lawmaker?

And what about the negative connotations of fruit and vegetable phrases? Health clubs regularly warn people that if they don't exercise their body will become "pear-shaped." And what about physical education teachers? Can they be prosecuted for uttering such traditional admonitions as, "Hey! You with the watermelon middle! Do some sit-ups!"

I think I understand the anger apple growers feel toward the members of the media over the Alar scare. Alar is the brand name of a chemical once used to make apples redder faster.

Back in 1989, a consumer group issued a report and a carrot-topped movie actress scared folks into thinking that if their kids ate Alar-treated apples the kids might get cancer.

Members of the media displayed all the depth of a radish in covering the story. Unable to assess the risk of eating apples -- it turned out to be minimal -- we suggested alternative ways to get "safe" food. My favorite of the period was when a New York newspaper suggested that residents of one of the most densely populated and polluted cities in America grow their own fruits and vegetables.

I'll take my chances eating Alar-covered apples over asparagus grown on 42nd Street any day.

Since then folks in and out of the media have gotten smarter. We are less easily spooked about what we are eating. And we have learned to ask common-sense questions, like how the risk of getting cancer from drinking quince juice compares with the risk of driving a car. We have progressed because we asked more questions about food, not because we restricted the scope of comments that could be made about it.

When the Alar report came out two years ago I read it and thought it was, to mix metaphors, full of baloney. That is how I feel now about the fruit and vegetable defense bill.

If it becomes law in Colorado, I'll have to do what any law-abiding Brussels sprout basher would. Boycott the state.

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