Shippers are getting a taste of what they can expect from a more aggressive and powerful Food and Drug Administration thanks to an agency move to stop orange juice shipments from overseas to test them for trace amounts of an illegal fungicide.
Shipments of imported orange juice, including concentrate and powdered products, have been frozen at U.S. ports and border crossings while FDA laboratories check samples for carbendazim, a fungicide used overseas but not permitted on crops in the United States.
The tests may take four to five days, and potentially another seven business days if carbendazim is found. Any shipment containing more than 10 parts per billion of the fungicide was to be blocked from entering the country, the food safety watchdog said.
Orange juice shipments could be stalled on the docks or at the border for two to three weeks before the screening is completed and the FDA allows them to proceed.
The first three shipments checked, all from Canada, contained no carbendazim and were allowed to proceed. As of Jan. 16, however, 28 shipments were on hold pending initial screening results, raising concerns about supply chain delays.
Importers whose shipments fail the tests must destroy them or export them within 90 days, the FDA said. Once juice shipments from a single manufacturer are cleared three times, that company’s products won’t be stopped and tested.
The FDA crackdown had a quick impact on orange juice futures, which soared to a record of $2.08 a pound on Jan. 10 before dropping again on the ICE Futures U.S. Exchange. High futures prices eventually could translate to higher consumer costs.
The U.S. is the world’s biggest single importer of orange juice, bringing in 328 million gallons in the 2009-10 season, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 40 percent of imported juice comes from Brazil.
Importers may wonder if the FDA’s orange crush is a harbinger of crackdowns to come under the Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2011. The FDA is stepping up inspections under the law to prevent unsafe foods from entering the country.
The agency is preparing new regulations required by the food safety law, including a proposal that would allow third-party auditors to inspect foods produced overseas, and a Foreign Supplier Verification proposal is expected early this year as well.
However, the carbendazim contamination came to light not through an FDA inspection but when a U.S. juice producer, identified by The Wall Street Journal as Coca-Cola, tested its own products and found small amounts of the fungicide.
The carbendazim was traced to orange juice from Brazil. Orange growers in that nation and others spray the fungicide on crops for a cosmetic purpose, to prevent the mold known as black spot from growing on fruit, making it less attractive.
Coca-Cola, which produces Minute Maid and Simply Orange juices, and PepsiCo, parent company of Tropicana, hold a major share of the U.S. orange-juice market. Carbendazim was reportedly found in orange juice made by PepsiCo as well. Both manufacturers mix imported and domestic juice in their finished products.
Coca-Cola alerted the FDA, which began testing imported juice shipments on Jan. 4 and is testing domestic orange juice sold in retail and grocery stores. The agency said it has no plans to issue a recall or order the destruction of domestic juice.
In fact, the small amounts of carbendazim detected in imported juice don’t pose a public health risk, according to the FDA. The Environmental Protection Agency says juice containing up to 80 parts per billion of carbendazim is safe for consumption.
In large doses, carbendazim has been linked to disease in laboratory animals, and some nations, including Australia, ban its use on crops. In the U.S., the fungicide has been approved for use on non-food products such as textiles and paints.
However, it’s not considered hazardous “in normal use,” according to the World Health Organization. So why the stir? Carbendazim is not listed for use on crops in the U.S., which, safe or not, makes its presence in U.S. juice illegal.
Barring a change in U.S. regulations, that makes it likely U.S. importers will review sourcing strategies, which could pose a challenge to growers in Brazil, who would have to decide whether to use carbendazim or lose important U.S. customers.