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PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- A new group of rural Minnesotans is urging consumers of fast food giant McDonald’s to question exactly what goes into getting its fries.

On Thursday, an introductory news conference was held to discuss issues and potential action involving the new group, Toxic Taters Coalition.

To begin, two personal testimonies were given by members Carol Ashley of Park Rapids and Norma Smith of Frazee. Both testimonies concerned the physical and emotional effects they said they have sustained from years of exposure to the “pesticide drifting” that the group alleges is caused by potato producers – whom McDonald’s purchases from – spraying of potato fields with excessive pesticides.

“(Because of pesticide spraying) one year I witnessed a multitude of frogs that disappeared shortly after pesticide season started,” Ashley said of where she had lived near Park Rapids. “I saw birds dead under power lines. The pesticides remained in the air throughout the entire summer and had various detrimental health effects depending on the pesticide used. One insecticide left me sick for three days and barely able to move. It doesn’t seem right that people can’t live safely in their own homes. It doesn’t seem right that we have to bear the cost and that we need to be poisoned in order to grow food. We believe and have evidence that growing food can be done in ways without harming people or the environment.”

Smith said: “Are we really told all the ingredients in those chemicals? The mindset needs to be changed so that all of us can have a happy life.”

After their testimony, Linda Wells, associate organizing director for the nonprofit group Pesticide Action Network in Minneapolis – whose focus is on reducing exposure to health-harmful pesticides – and Robert Shimek, a member of the Toxic Taters Coalition, also spoke.

Both discussed the background of pesticide spraying and use in the areas surrounding Park Rapids, and the goals the new Toxic Taters Coalition would like to achieve.

“Since 2006, using our drift-catching technology, we have been able to document pesticide drift in potato-producing regions of Minnesota,” Wells said. “Through the monitoring of air samples, this group has documented pesticides drifting onto surrounding farms, schools and houses on an alarmingly consistent basis. During the first three years of air monitoring, pesticides were detected in more than 66 percent of the samples taken.”

The most common pesticide detected was chlorothalonil, a fungicide listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a probable carcinogen; it’s also highly toxic when inhaled, Wells said. Air monitoring also found other herbicides and insecticides drifting from potato fields to other residents, she added.

PAN has advocated, alongside the Toxic Taters Coalition, to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the state Legislature, R.D. Offutt Co. and now McDonald’s that something must be done to lessen this exposure to toxic pesticides. McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of potatoes in the country and has the power to single-handedly shift the entire market toward more sustainable potato production, Wells said.

Shimek elaborated that only the Toxic Taters Coalition was new; the efforts to correct the problem were not.

“McDonald’s says it’s an RDO issue. RDO says they are in compliance with all existing laws and regulations and if we want help then we have to go to the state Legislature. We went to the state Legislature and they refuse to allow our bills out of committee. The regulators will not act. It leaves us now with McDonald’s, RDO and the consumer. The poisoning of our land, water and our communities must stop now,” Shimek said.

According to email correspondence from Wells, the Toxic Tater Coalition wants to see McDonald’s require potato suppliers like RDO to achieve measurable and significant decreases in the use of health-harming pesticides, require its potato producers to release information on the chemicals they apply to their crops, fund an independent public health study on affected communities near potato production and ensure that its potato producers adopt environmentally sound, sustainable agriculture practices.

“The coalition is asking McDonald’s to create a comprehensive standard for the producers they buy from. McDonald’s doesn’t have a standard for its pesticide application for its producers. We want McDonald’s to make an agreement with a third party certifier who would go in and make a reduction in the usage of pesticides. This is something that we are asking for,” Wells said.

A campaign video and petition were launched in coordination with the event. The Toxic Taters Coalition plans to hold more informational meetings, although none has been scheduled. For more information, visit www.toxictaters.org.