Orange juice import ban reflects a smoldering crisis

On January 11 the FDA announced it was banning imports of orange juice from all foreign countries. This is a serious action. The mere possibility of it caused orange juice futures to soar to an all-time high.The impact on US growers may very well be significant. The impact on global trade may also be significant as affected orange farmers in other countries, particularly Brazil where this hits hardest, look to their governments for retaliation.

Since this is serious, there must be a very serious reason for this strong action. On the face of it, it looks like there is. The problem is a fungicide called carbendazim. It is used to prevent black spot, a type of mold that grows on orange trees. The problem is the fungicide is illegal to use in the US, but not in Brazil.

Orange juice is big business. In 2009 we Americans drank 1.2 billion gallons of the healthy stuff, or almost 4 gallons per person. A lot of the orange juice comes from concentrate from Brazil. Since Brazilian orange juice is more tart than most domestic juice, the juice we drink usually comes from different sources. The biggest brands of orange juice are Minute Maid and Tropicana, owned by CocaCola and Pepsico respectively. It was CocaCola which alerted the FDA to the presence of the carbendazim in Brazilian concentrate.

This may appear to be a simple case of the US government doing for us what we expect it to which is to protect our food supply and help keep us safe and healthy. I wish it were that simple. But food safety and health issues are all caught up in pseudo-science, in politics, in global trade issues, in hatred and mistrust of big corporations, in media fear-mongering.

The carbendazim that was discovered by CocaCola is in the parts per billion range. Extremely low levels. I doubt there is a single credible scientist that would say that drinking orange juice with carbendazim in it at 10 parts per billion represents any kind of health risk–unless maybe you are a lab rat and the force feed you forty gallons of the stuff. Testing of elements in food has gotten very, very good. We now test for things at minute levels where before we had no idea they were there because our technology didn’t allow us to test for it. But there is a dark side to that. Find one thing at some minute level and the world can go crazy.

That brings me to my old subject: how does the media deal with this. Case #1: Huffington Post. The headline makes it clear what their intention will be: “Orange Juice Shows Us the Toxic Side of International Trade.” That’s beautiful, we got toxins, orange juice and the evils of international trade all in one attention-grabbing headline. The article, written by professor so who could question his credentials, goes on at great lengths to point out the extreme danger of this thing called carbendazim:

This fungicide is closely related to the phased out benomyl, eliminated over concerns that it causes birth defects. Carbendazim also causes birth defects in lab animals and is probably the reason benomyl does so since benomyl breaks down to carbendazim in the body. Both fungicides also damage male fertility and cause liver cancer. FDA has responded to this information by disallowing carbendazim use on food crops in the US and has no acceptable tolerances for this fungicide on imports such as orange juice.

That’s enough to scare me. But the above paragraph does not point out that there is a relationship between danger and exposure. It isn’t until the very last paragraph where the author admits something that is rather important to this whole story:

Fortunately the concentrations of carbendazim found in orange juice so far are below what would constitute a frank health risk.

OK, at the parts per billion level we are talking about there is no health risk. The FDA said so themselves:

“Consumption of orange juice with carbendazim at the low levels that have been reported does not raise safety concerns,” the FDA said in a letter to the Juice Products Association, a trade group. “FDA does not intend to take action to remove from domestic commerce orange juice containing the reported low levels of carbendazim.”

It turns out that the lack of safety concern expressed by the FDA is a bit of an understatement. According to the EPA the benchmark for products on the market is 80 parts per billion and that level is 1000 to 3000 times lower than the levels that would indicate a health concern. So, if my math is correct, the EPA says the parts per billion would have to be from 80,000 to 240,000 parts billion before there would be a health concern.

These levels do not raise safety concerns? Then why did the FDA take the action it did? Why does HuffPo link orange juice with toxins, why do they scare the bejesus out of everyone with the terrible risks this imported juice represents? Why does even an innocuous business article about this issue include the “on-the-street” interview with a customer who says, “I’m not going to buy anymore of it until they say all of the orange juice is okay.”

You would think the US growers would be ecstatic. Clearly this will raise prices of domestic oranges. But they are realistic:

“There might be concerns in some consumers’ minds about there being chemicals within the juice. I think that could almost counter-balance the increase in futures prices and subsequent returns to Florida growers,” said Ray Royce of the Highland County Citrus Growers Association in central Florida.

Royce also said something that should be of concern to all of us who buy food: “Obviously food safety issues are probably going to play a bigger and bigger role in driving food or commodity prices in the future.” I’m sure you don’t mind and I don’t mind paying more for food if safety is improved. But I hate like heck having to pay more for political purposes or because the news media need to get more eyes on their websites and do so by doing everything they can to scare people whether there is justification or not.

Why is there a growing state of fear relating to orange juice in this issue? Is because the US believes Brazil is dumping oranges on us? That motivation is entirely possible given this action by the US in 2009 against dumping accusations. Might the growers in Florida look to the administration for a boost and the administration see opportunity relating to an election later this year?

I’m really not into conspiracy thinking. But I am very interested in the public being made aware that screaming headlines about the next great danger to our food may not be accurate, fair or in our best interests. I am convinced that the food production business from the farmer to the giant manufacturer is in for a very interesting time. The shifting values of the American consumer are at the heart of it, but those shifting values are created or inflamed by the necessity of media outlets to attract and audience. And there can be no doubt that visceral emotion is their greatest strategy. They create fear — often at the expense of the truth. And when politicians and regulators sense fear or outrage, they believe it is their duty to step and create new laws or more restrictive regulations.

We all want our food supply to be safe. But I want decisions about that to be based on reality, not screaming headlines and government action based on unreasonable public fear and unproven accusations.

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