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FDA Says Brazil's Orange Juice Is Safe, But Still Illegal

If you happen to notice sometime later this year that you're suddenly paying a lot more for orange juice, you can blame America's food safety authorities. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, after several weeks of deliberation, has blocked imports of frozen, concentrated orange juice from Brazil, probably for the next 18 months or so, even though the agency says the juice is perfectly safe.

The FDA's explanation is that its hands are legally tied. Its tests show that practically all concentrated juice from Brazil currently contains traces of the fungicide carbendazim, first detected in December by Coca-Cola, maker of Minute Maid juices. The amounts are small — so small that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says no consumers should be concerned.

The problem is, carbendazim has not been used on oranges in the U.S. in recent years, and the legal permission to use it on that crop has lapsed. As a result, there's not a legal "tolerance" for residues of this pesticide in orange products.

So, according to the FDA, any speck of this fungicide, if found in orange juice, is an illegal adulterant and won't be allowed, even though residues of the same fungicide are allowed in many other foods, including apple and grape juice. (The oddity of the situation prompted FDAImports, an industry consultant on food regulation, to publish a slightly satirical graphic on the topic.)

Brazil's juice, by the way, still is welcome in Europe, its biggest export market. It will take about 18 months before the country's juice is once again free of carbendazim and can enter the U.S. market again.

In 2010, about 11 percent of all the orange juice consumed in America came from Brazil, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That share may seem modest, but economist Thomas Prusa of Rutgers tells The Salt that cutting it out could boost wholesale prices of concentrated orange juice by 20 to 45 percent.

Prusa says the impact is magnified because orange juice already is in short supply.

"We were not exactly covered up in juice when this happened," says Kristin Gunter, executive director of the Florida Citrus Processors Association. The U.S. orange juice industry has faced shrinking production here at home because of problems with diseases — especially one called citrus greening. The USDA has mounted a campaign to keep the incurable disease from spreading across the country.

As a result, U.S. citrus growers are surprisingly unhappy about the misfortune of their Brazilian competitors. They worry that a shortage will drive prices up and drive consumers away from orange juice entirely. "We pretty much all understood that it's not a good thing," says Gunter. "It's hard to sell juice if the price is going up."

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