Responding to recent reports of orange juice from Brazil testing positive for a fungicide, the US Food and Drug Administration is conducting tests on imported juice and holding orange juice imports to the country. The episode has caused orange juice stock values to decline, and has left critics questioning the agency’s ability to keep American food safe.
The tainted juice claims surfaced back in December when drink-giant Coca-Cola found low levels of the fungicide, carbendazim, in its Brazilian orange juice imports. After finding similar results in juice from its competitors, the company took its data to the FDA, acting as “a good corporate citizen,” according to FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey.
Since January 4, the FDA has been busy testing imports for carbendazim. So far, the agency has received the results of three preliminary tests, all of which have been negative.
Yet while US consumers don’t appear to be in danger, the reports have led to some raised eyebrows for the FDA. As Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food safety at New York University, puts it, Coca-Cola “deserves a big round of applause” for its testing honesty, “but as a matter of national public health policy, this country badly needs an independent regulatory agency — as the FDA is supposed to be — to keep companies honest. [The FDA] is completely overwhelmed by imported foods. Is FDA routinely testing foods from China? Don’t we wish.”
Caroline Smith DeWaal, director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, concurs: with foreign food flooding US borders, “How will [the] FDA assure that products coming in actually meet U.S. safety standards?”
This time, the US may have lucked out. While national standards do not allow carbendazim to be present in US food imports, animal studies show that at the levels consumed, the fungicide doesn’t seem to be harmful to human health. Not only that, but carbendazim is approved in Brazil and several other countries, where it’s used to prevent black spot disease in fruit.
And another slice of fortune for US food safety: Mary Reardon of the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reports that of the orange juice consumed in the US, 77% comes from domestically grown oranges, while 11%, 8%, and 2% come from Brazil, Mexico, and Costa Rica, respectively.
As of yet, the FDA hasn’t pulled any orange juice from the shelves. Following standards set by a preliminary risk assessment performed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the organization says that traces of the fungicide below 80 parts per billion (ppb) pose no threat to human health. The highest estimates from Coca-Cola have not surpassed 35 ppb.
But while any fears of an OJ crisis have been allayed, American consumers and critics alike are keeping an eye on the FDA, hoping that all food on US shelves will be certified safe.
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