WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators have halted shipments of imported orange juice from all countries, and plan to destroy or ban products if tests find even low levels from a prohibited fungicide. Initial test results are due this week.
The imports will be held temporarily while they’re tested and may be sold if levels are below trace amounts, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The fungicide, linked in studies to higher risk of liver tumors in animals, was found in trace amounts last month in products from Brazil, which produces almost one in every six glasses of orange juice consumed in the United States, according to CitrusBR, an export industry association.
Bradenton-based Tropicana, which imports from Brazil, wouldn’t say how the ban would impact company operations.
The embargo will be felt at Port Manatee, which gets about 20 shipments of orange juice a year. Port Manatee gets a total of about 1,000 vessel calls annually.
“It’s an important part of our cargo matrix,” said Steve Tyndal, the port’s senior director of trade development and special projects. “The impacts at this point are really unknown because we don’t know how long the interruption will continue. This is a federal matter, so it’s beyond our jurisdiction.”
While the chemical, carbendazim, is used in crops in many countries, it isn’t approved for use in oranges in the U.S. The agency’s announcement spurred calls by a consumer group for the FDA to set standards on chemicals for testing 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 that works to ensure safe, accessible and sustainable food.
“We think FDA needs to do more inspections of imported food, including juice,” she said.
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.
“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 Wednesday in an email to Bloomberg News.
The FDA also is screening juice that’s already for sale in the U.S. market, said Siobhan DeLancey, an agency spokeswoman. That’s because products often contain a mixture of imported and domestic juice.
Americans consumed 1.2 million gallons from the 2009-2010 growing season, Department of Agriculture data shows. The agency hasn’t previously tested for the chemical because it wasn’t a risk, DeLancey said. The unnamed company that reported finding the chemical has been tracking the compound for several years, she said.
Concerns about the pesticide started Dec. 28 when the FDA learned that an unnamed juice company had detected low levels in its own and other products, according to letter from the agency to the Juice Products Association, a Washington trade group. The fungicide was found in products from Brazil’s 2011 crop.
“Brazilian orange juice is safe and always has been,” said Dan Schafer, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based Coca Cola Co., which owns the Minute Maid brand, in an email. “Second, this is an issue that impacts every company that produces products in the U.S. containing orange juice from Brazil.”
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,
The agency expects initial testing to be complete by the end of the week, 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 that the levels that would indicate a health concern, he said in an email.
“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.
-- Herald Business writer Josh Salman contributed to this report.