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FDA Suspends Orange Juice Imports to Examine for Fungicide

By Stephanie Armour
January 11, 2012 8:03 PM EST 13 Comments
A worker shovels valencia oranges onto a truck headed to the Citrus Products of Belize Ltd. on Jan. 14, 2011.
Photographer: Chip Chipman/Bloomberg
A worker shovels valencia oranges onto a truck headed to the Citrus Products of Belize Ltd. on Jan. 14, 2011.

The U.S. has temporarily halted shipments of imported orange juice from all countries while they’re being tested, and said it will destroy or ban products containing even low levels from a banned fungicide.

If levels of the chemical, carbendazim, are found to be below trace amounts, the products may be released and sold, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Initial tests on shipments from Canada didn’t turn up the chemical, the FDA said.

The fungicide, linked in studies to higher risk of liver tumors in animals, was found in trace amounts last month in products from Brazil after The Coca Cola Co. (KO), which owns the Minute Maid brand, said it notified the FDA that some Brazilian growers had sprayed their trees with the chemical.

“This is an industry issue that affects every company that produces products in the U.S. using orange juice from Brazil,” the Atlanta-based company said in a statement.

Brazil produces almost one in every six glasses of orange juice consumed in the U.S., according to CitrusBR, an export industry association. The FDA announcement about its testing spurred calls by a consumer group for the agency to set standards on chemicals that can be used for screening going forward.

“We’re glad they will be testing for this fungicide, but we would like there to be standards they could enforce for residue levels in food -- for this chemical and others, like arsenic or lead that have been found in other juices,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the Washington-based Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group.

More Inspections Sought

“We think FDA needs to do more inspections of imported food, including juice,” she said.

Americans consumed 1.2 million gallons from the 2009-2010 growing season, U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows. The agency hasn’t previously tested for the chemical because it wasn’t a risk, said Siobhan DeLancey, an agency spokeswoman.

While carbendazim, is used in crops in many countries, it isn’t approved for use in oranges in the U.S. Brazilian growers expressed frustration with the testing.

“Our main concern is how this move will affect consumption and image of our product,” said Flavio Viegas, head of Brazil’s citrus growers association, known as Associtrus, which represents about 1,300 orange growers.

‘Widely Accepted’

“Carbendazim is widely accepted for other crops, including apples, which are consumed fresh,” he said by phone from Bebedouro, Brazil. “I don’t understand what’s the deal with frozen concentrated orange juice.”

Carbendazim is used to combat black spot, a fungus that doesn’t affect taste or crop yields, but makes fruits less appealing to consumers, Brazil’s grower-run Fund for Citrus Plant Protection, known as Fundecitrus, said today in an e-mail to Bloomberg News.

The FDA is also screening juice that’s already for sale in the U.S. market, the FDA’s DeLancey said. That’s because products often contain a mixture of imported and domestic juice.

The FDA said it was alerted to the fungicide Dec. 28, when a company detected low levels in its own and other products, according to a letter the agency sent to the Juice Products Association, a Washington trade group. The fungicide was found in products from Brazil’s 2011 crop.

Juice Futures

Orange juice futures rose the most in five years after the FDA investigation was announced, combined with freezing weather that’s damaged citrus crops in Florida.

The “test and hold” policy extends to all orange juice imports, not only those from Brazil and the FDA doesn’t believe levels reported so far pose a public health risk, Delancey said,

Imported juice that tests at concentrations of 10 parts per billion or higher will be refused or destroyed, DeLancey said.

For products on the market, the benchmark is below 80 parts per billion because the Environmental Protection Agency’s risk assessment says they don’t have safety concerns at that level, said Dale Kemery, a spokesman for the agency. This level is 1,000 to 3,000 times lower than the levels that would indicate a health concern, he said in an e-mail.

“Based on monitoring data provided to EPA by FDA, the EPA has no reason to expect that residues of carbendazim in oranges grown in Brazil would ever approach levels that would raise safety concerns,” Kemery wrote.

Drinking orange juice with the levels of carbendazim reported “does not raise safety concerns,” according to the FDA letter to the industry trade group.

Apples, Grape Juice

Ten percent of 88 samples of apple and grape juice tested had total arsenic levels exceeding federal drinking water standards, according to a November report by Consumer Reports.

As consumer groups called for new guidelines on the chemical, the FDA this year enhanced its surveillance for arsenic in apple juice. The FDA is working with the EPA on steps the agencies can take to reduce overall arsenic levels in food, according to the agency.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Armour in Washington at sarmour@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Adriel Bettelheim at abettelheim@bloomberg.net

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