OJ Scare Shows Holes in FDA’s Food Screening Process

The saga of tainted juice reveals holes in FDA screening. What else is slipping past? By Daniel Stone

Paulo Whitaker, Reuters / Landov

Each year, Americans drink about five million gallons of orange juice, much of it produced by just a few major companies, and virtually all of it containing some foreign ingredients from a sunny place on the planet.

That’s because oranges only grow during a narrow season of the year, and every bottle of OJ at your supermarket has to taste exactly the same, no matter where the oranges are from. Scientists at Coca Cola know this. The company owns Minute Maid, the second most popular orange juice line in the U.S. (Tropicana, a property of PepsiCo, is the first.) Every bottle of liquid or frozen orange juice is inspected for taste and quality—and safety.

Last month, on the day after Christmas, scientists at Coke noticed something strange. Their tests were turning up positive for a fungicide that was apparently being used by farmers in Brazil, the top producer of oranges. After one positive test, they did another, and then another. Then they checked some of the competitors’ juice. Also positive. The chemical, carbendazim, is commonly used to prevent diseases in fruit and is legal to use in Brazil. But it’s banned in the U.S. after studies showed it can lead to infertility. So even at the extremely low levels detected (about 10 parts per billion), it was technically illegal. Coke’s next call was to the Food and Drug Administration.

What followed next was a saga that has played out on network newscasts and within major newspaper columns, raising alarm over Americans’ orange juice and how safe it actually is. CNN called the safety scare an “OJ Crisis.” The Wall Street Journal reported that orange juice prices would soar in response. As the frenzy played out in the media, orange-juice futures took their biggest tumble in more than two years.

At the time, FDA and EPA officials sprung into action. They had, it appeared, been caught asleep on the job. An unapproved and potentially dangerous chemical had sneaked past their inspectors on the border and was sitting, for all anyone knew, in millions of American refrigerators. FDA researchers started doing tests of their own in different cities. And their tests turned out the same – about a dozen parts per billion of carbendazim. So they did the next logical thing and stopped all imports of orange juice into the U.S., including thousands of shipments already en route. None could enter until they passed tests showing no detectable traces of the chemical. Most imported orange juice comes to to the U.S. in the form of concentrate, which is then mixed with the domestically grown product. The ban didn’t apply to oranges.

Nega Beru, who heads the FDA’s office of food safety, drafted a letter to the Juice Products Association, an industry group that speaks in Washington for about 130 U.S. juice producers or importers. “The FDA appreciates the industry informing the FDA of the issue,” Beru wrote. “We request that you inform us of the juice industry’s plans for ensuring that suppliers in Brazil (or elsewhere) refrain from using this pesticide in a manner that results in illegal residues in orange juice products intended for the United States.” Coke, Pepsi and other major producers immediately braced for the market shocks.

Naturally, at the same time there was PR to manage. Eager to brand itself as honest and prudent, Coke officials alerted the media that it effectively blew the whistle on itself—an admirable move considering prices instantly jumped 11 percent, slowing sales of juice already on the shelves. “We expect any responsible company would have done the same,” says Dan Schafer, a Coke spokesman. Other manufacturers, including PepsiCo, kept a low profile.

Aside from new screening on the borders, the crisis has mostly peaked. Three of FDA’s 24 tests of new shipments have all turned up negative for the chemical (the other 21 are still pending) and several of the shipments with the chemical have been sent back. The government’s policy is more lax for juice already on store shelves. So long as detected levels of carbendazim are low enough, in the range of 10 to 35 ppb, they can stay for sale. If that’s concerning, the FDA will tell you that the European Union allows up to 200 ppb.

The FDA, meanwhile, now faces the embarrassing truth that it dropped the ball. The agency’s defenders say FDA officials simply don’t have the reach or resources to screen every edible thing that comes across the border. FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey says the onus is on companies to provide a safe product. She points to the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year, when officials stopped all potentially contaminated products from entering the U.S., as proof the agency can be agile in the face of a threat.

The Washington group Food and Water Watch, which advocates for diligent screening of food, expects that the juice issue will eventually blow over. But the issue might be a lot bigger than OJ. At present, the FDA only tests about 2 percent of all fish, produce, and processed foods that come into the U.S. “You can take a real short term look at this week’s orange juice news,” says Patty Lovera, the group’s assistant policy director. “Or you can ask the more important question, which is ‘why are we importing so much food we don’t know is safe?’”