The FDA is testing imported orange juice for the fungicide carbendazim,… (Tim Boyle, Getty Images )
The U.S. temporarily halted shipments of imported orange juice from all countries and said it would destroy or ban products containing even low levels of a banned fungicide.
The imports will be held while they're tested and may be sold if levels are below trace amounts, the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday. The fungicide, linked in studies to a higher risk of liver tumors in animals, was found in trace amounts last month in products from Brazil, which produces almost 1 in 6 glasses of orange juice consumed in the U.S., according to CitrusBR, an export industry association.
Though the chemical, carbendazim, is used on crops in many countries, it isn't approved for use on oranges in the U.S. The agency's announcement spurred calls by a consumer group for the FDA to set standards on chemicals for testing.
"We're glad they will be testing for this fungicide, but we would like there to be standards they could enforce for residue levels in food — for this chemical and others, like arsenic or lead that have been found in other juices," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the Washington-based Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group that works to ensure safe, accessible and sustainable food.
"We think FDA needs to do more inspections of imported food, including juice," she said.
Initial tests on Canadian shipments didn't turn up the chemical, the FDA said.
Carbendazim is used to combat black spot, a fungus that doesn't affect taste or crop yields but makes fruits less appealing to consumers, said Brazil's grower-run Fund for Citrus Plant Protection, known as Fundecitrus.
The FDA is also screening juice that's already for sale in the U.S. market, said Siobhan DeLancey, an agency spokeswoman. That's because products often contain a mixture of imported and domestic juice. Preliminary tests on three Canadian samples were negative, she said.
Americans consumed 1.2 million gallons from the 2009-10 growing season, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. The agency hasn't previously tested for the chemical because it wasn't a risk, DeLancey said. A company recently reported finding the chemical after several years of monitoring, she said.
Concerns about the pesticide started Dec. 28 when the FDA learned that the unnamed juice company had detected low levels in its own and other products.
"Brazilian orange juice is safe and always has been," said Dan Schafer, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., which owns the Minute Maid brand.
Orange juice futures rose the most in five years after the FDA investigation was announced, combined with freezing weather that has damaged citrus crops in Florida.