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Coca-Cola Finds Fungicide in Orange Juice Brands on American Store Shelves

Beyond Pesticides

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it will step up testing for a fungicide not registered for use in the U.S. that has been found in low levels in orange juice. The fungicide, carbendazim, does not have any food tolerances and thus its presence in orange juice is unlawful under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Despite this, FDA does not intend to take action to remove from domestic commerce orange juice containing the reported low levels of carbendazim, but will deny future imports.

FDA said in a letter to the Juice Products Association that an unnamed juice company (later identified as Coca-Cola, maker of Minute Maid and Simply Orange), contacted the agency in late December and said it had detected low levels of carbendazim, a fungicide, in the company’s own orange juice and also its competitors’ juice. Carbendazim is not currently approved for use on citrus in the U.S., but is used in Brazil, which exports orange juice to the U.S. Testing found levels up to 35 parts per billion (ppb) of the fungicide, far below the European Union’s maximum residue level of 200 ppb. The U.S. does not have an established maximum residue level (tolerance level) for carbendazim in oranges.

According to the FDA letter, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a preliminary risk assessment based on the recent report of carbendazim in orange juice, and concluded that consumption of orange juice with carbendazim at the low levels that have been reported does not raise safety concerns. However, when carbendazim was evaluated along with its parent chemical—thiophanate-methyl—also a fungicide, by EPA in 2004, both were determined to cause liver and thyroid effects in animal studies and have been classified as probable human carcinogens. Repeated exposure to carbendazim causes spermatogenic effects in rats and hepatic tumours in mice. The liver and thyroid are the primary target organs in several species following subchronic or chronic dietary exposures and the testes are the main known target organ for carbendazim. Carbendazim is also listed as a potential endocrine disruptor in the European Union.

Section 408 of the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) authorizes EPA to establish, modify or maintain tolerances or tolerance exemptions for pesticide residues in or on food. According to the law, any food with pesticide residues not covered by a tolerance or tolerance exemption, and any food with residues in excess of the tolerance, may be subject to regulatory action, including seizure, by the U.S. government. Pesticide tolerances and exemptions are enforced by FDA (for most foods), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (for meat, poultry and some egg products), and the individual states. According to EPA’s 2004 registration documents for thiophosphate-methyl and its degradate carbendazim, there are no registered food uses in the U.S., nor import tolerances for carbendazim. Food with pesticide residues cannot be imported to the U.S. without an established food tolerance (the legal maximum pesticide residue allowed in or on food.)

FDA states it is sampling import shipments of orange juice and will deny entry to shipments that test positive for carbendazim. FDA does not intend to take action to remove from domestic commerce orange juice containing the reported low levels of carbendazim. The discovery comes after the agency said it would also step up testing for arsenic in apple juice. FDA officials said last year that the agency is considering tightening restrictions for the levels of arsenic allowed in the juice after consumer groups pushed the agency to crack down on the contaminant. Studies show that apple juice has generally low levels of arsenic, and the government says it is safe to drink. But consumer advocates say the FDA is allowing too much of the chemical.

Carbendazim is a systemic benzimidazole fungicide that plays a role in plant disease control with the global market worth more than $200 million, and is an approved fungicide in many countries. According to an FDA notification, it “learned from a juice company that it had detected low levels of carbendazim (in the low parts per billion range) in its and competitors’ currently marketed finished products, and in certain orange juice concentrate that is not on the market.” It is thought that the chemical was in the juice because it had been imported from Brazil, where the chemical is legal and used against black spot.

The use of hazardous chemicals in food production, especially chemicals not allowed for use in the U.S. and Europe, is still a common practice in much of the developing world where food is routinely imported into the U.S. By purchasing food commodities with legal tolerances for pesticides no longer used or restricted in the U.S., consumers inadvertently support agricultural production practices in other countries that are associated with the range of adverse effects as noted in the Pesticide Induced-Disease Database, including poor labor practices and environmental degradation. The Eating with a Conscience database, based on legal tolerances (or allowable residues on food commodities), describes a food production system that enables toxic pesticide use both domestically in the U.S. and internationally, and provides a look at the toxic chemicals allowed in the production of the food we eat and the environmental and public health effects resulting from their use.

To avoid potentially dangerous chemical residues in food, whose origins may be domestic or international, choose organic. The most important organic food products to purchase, especially for children, are those that are consumed in great quantity, such as juice. Purchasing organic juice is particularly important to reduce their pesticide exposure. Research has shown that switching children to an organic diet drastically reduces their exposure. For more information, visit our Organic Food page.

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