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Juice scare could boost business for citrus growers

MANATEE -- Local orange growers say the federal government’s probe of tainted imported juice from Brazil could have one of two results.

It could scare consumers to the point that they stay away from the breakfast staple entirely or they’ll turn to locally grown products instead. Most are banking on the latter.

“People will be looking for a lot more Florida oranges, which is a good thing,” said Janet Mixon, owner of Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton. “Consumers know Florida juice is safe. They trust it.”

Federal regulators halted imports this week of orange juice from all countries after trace amounts of banned fungicide were reported. The Coca-Cola Co., which produces Minute Maid and Simply Orange, confirmed Thursday it was responsible for reporting that low levels of the fungicide carbendazim were found in the company’s orange juice and in competitors’ juice.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have said orange juice is safe to drink.

Coca-Cola found levels up to 35 parts per billion of the fungicide, far below Europe’s allotted max of 200 parts per billion. Even if consumed, experts say the juice likely wouldn’t have been harmful.

Carbendazim is banned among orange growers in the U.S., but not Brazil, where the tainted juice originated.

Orange growers Thursday said business continues as usual.

“We’re not sure what impacts this will have,” said Andrew Meadows, spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an industry association. “This isn’t about Florida juice. Citrus agriculture is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country, and we’ll continue to follow the rules like we always have.”

Local growers said the news will temporarily spike the retail cost of orange juice among larger brands like Tropicana that import from Brazil, where juice is cheaper to produce because of lower labor costs and fewer regulations.

They hope that price increases will have more consumers thinking local.

“Anything that affects supply will have an impact on prices,” said Steven Futch, Manatee County citrus agent with University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “But this product isn’t used in Florida so it shouldn’t be an issue for local growers.”

Mega soft drink corporations that import up to 20 percent of their juice from Brazil have kept tight lipped all week.

Bradenton-based Tropicana, which uses Brazilian juice, made an unrelated decision several months ago to transition to all Florida oranges. That process should be completed by the end of the month, company spokeswoman Gina Judge said.

“As the largest buyer of Florida oranges, this is a minor supply chain change for our Tropicana Pure Premium product,” Judge said a statement.

“We take this matter seriously, and support the FDA’s approach to ensure the safety of the orange juice supply.”

A temporary embargo also will be felt at Port Manatee, which gets about 20 shipments of imported orange juice a year.

Area consumers said the FDA investigation just further highlights the quality of juice grown in Florida.

“This makes me glad I buy local,” said Gary Munkholm, a seasonal retiree from Minnesota who stocks up on Florida citrus while here. “It just makes sense.”

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095.

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