UPDATE: Senior scientist at Consumer Reports discusses the halt on shipments of orange juice. See below.
The Food and Drug Administration has blocked imported orange juice from all countries after trace amounts of fungicide were found in orange juice products from Brazil. The halt on all shipments will stay in effect while the FDA tests for the fungicide, carbendazim, which studies have linked to a higher risk of liver tumors in animals.
Fungicides are chemical compounds or biological organisms used to kill or inhibit fungi or fungal spores that can damage agriculture. It was the Coca Cola Company, owner of the Minute Maid brand, that alerted the FDA that their orange juice and that of their competitors carried residues of the chemical, the New York Times reports. Coca Cola was legally required to come forward, under the 2008 Amendments to the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act creating a Reportable Food Registry, says Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumer Reports.
The FDA said that although carbendazim is approved for use in other countries, that in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has not approved it for use as a fungicide on oranges, and that "carbendazim in orange juice is an unlawful pesticide chemical residue under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act."
The FDA is taking multiple samples from individual shipments. Thus far, samples of shipments from Canada have not tested positive for the chemical, according to the Times. The FDA will deny entry to shipments that do test positive for carbendazim.
“The FDA is saying that for the testing they are doing now, that if the levels of carbendazim are greater than 10 parts per billion they will destroy it or return it to the country of origin,” Hansen said.
In the meantime, the EPA has concluded that consumption of orange juice with carbendazim at the low levels that were initially reported does not raise safety concerns, and the FDA will not remove orange juice containing the reported low levels of carbendazim from the market. If the agency identifies orange juice with carbendazim at levels that present a public health risk, however, it will "alert the public and ensure that the product is removed from the market."
"The concern is that the risks of this fungicide have not been adequately evaluated," said Hansen. “If growers and juice companies think this pesticide should be allowed then EPA must set a permitted level of carbendazim. They need to go through the process of establishing that limit and release the data needed in order to do a risk assessment.”
So is the orange juice safe that made it into the country between when Coca Cola alerted the FDA to the situation and when the agency stopped shipment? Hansen suggests that there is no immediate acute risk. But, if you are concerned about the orange juice that may be currently sitting in your fridge you can look at the label to find its country of origin, and if the juice is from Brazil, don’t use it if you don’t want to. You could also purchase organic juice.
About 11 percent of the orange juice consumed in the U.S. is from Brazil, according to figures cited by CNNMoney from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.