Contaminated Orange Juice Scare Points To Food Safety Weakness

News that orange juice imported to the U.S. could be contaminated with a toxic substance has highlighted weakness in the country’s food safety system. Earlier this week, concerns that some imported juice could be tainted with carbendazim, an unapproved fungicide, prompted the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to halt orange juice imports so they can be tested further.

Now, critics are calling into question the agency’s ability to protect U.S. food supplies, said USA Today. With food imports to the U.S. growing, some are worried about the FDA’s ability to police the safety of products from abroad. Under the FDA’s in-progress Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, foreign suppliers must verify their foods meet U.S. safety specifications. However, because of staffing issues, most testing is performed by by third-party auditing companies who are paid by foreign food suppliers, noted USA Today.

The FDA recently said it planned to release a batch of orange juice imported from Canada, the first juice to enter the country since fungicide testing was initiated. Fox News reported that initial tests revealed that three of the Canadian shipments did not have any detectable levels of the fungicide, according to the FDA. Once testing is complete, the shipments will be released to the U.S. “We’ve got 30 more samples pending, and those come from Canada, Mexico, and Brazil,” said FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey, who explained that testing takes five to ten business days to complete. “I’m not sure what is where in the pipeline,” DeLancey added, wrote Fox News. FDA began testing orange juice on January 4th.

Although previously unnamed, it was the Coca-Cola Co., which discovered carbendazim in its routine testing of orange juice imported from Brazil by its Minute Maid subsidiary, said USA Today. The firm then tested competitors’ juices and found fungicide residue in those, as well. Coca-Cola “was a good corporate citizen” by alerting the FDA late last month, said DeLancey, wrote USA Today. “This is an industry issue,” Coca-Cola spokesman Dan Schafer said. “We detected the low levels in most of the products we tested,” he added, according to USA Today.
According to the AP, Coca-Cola did not say which products it tested that contained the fungicide. Its own orange juice products include Simply Orange and Minute Maid.

An FDA spokeswoman said the company’s testing detected carbendazim levels of up to 35 parts per billion (ppb), which is below the European Union’s (EU) top residue level of 200 ppb. The U.S. never created a maximum residue level for the fungicide in oranges, said the AP; however the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers 80 ppb to be a health risk.

Fungicides control agricultural fungi or fungal spores. Carbendazim is not approved for use on U.S. citrus, but is used in Brazil, which exports orange juice to the U.S. said DeLancey. The FDA is testing orange juice at the retail level and, if it detects levels that it considers to be of concern, “we will facilitate the removal of products from the market,” DeLancey noted, wrote USA Today.

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