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FDA To Hold Orange Juice Imports For Testing

Oranges for sale at a market in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
AFP/Getty Images
Oranges for sale at a market in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

When you think of your orange juice in its infancy, you probably envision neat rows of leafy green citrus trees in Florida or California. Tropicana and other companies have helped seal that image in our minds.

But the reality is that 11 percent of the juice consumed in the U.S. in 2010 was from Brazil, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And a fair amount came from Mexico, too.

Now those imports are in question, prompting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to hold at the ports all orange juice imports from overseas, a spokeswoman says.

Why all the fuss? Last month, a Florida company found low levels of a fungicide called carbendazim in orange juice products that contained juice imported from Brazil. The chemical is approved for use in Brazil but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not approved it for use here.

This week, the FDA decided it would start testing juice for the fungicide. In a letter to the Juice Products Association, the FDA said Monday it is sampling import shipments of orange juice and will deny entry to shipments that test positive for carbendazim. Those shipments found to be free of the chemical will be allowed to enter the country.

Previously, the agency wasn't looking for the chemical because "we did not have an indication that it was a problem," says FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey. "But then a company brought it our attention. They have been testing for carbendazim for several years and they noted that all of a sudden there was a spike."

Still DeLancey tells NPR in an email that the orange juice supply is safe. "Based on preliminary analyses, and in consultation with EPA, FDA believes consumption of orange juice with carbendazim at the low levels that have been reported does not raise safety concerns," she wrote.

Some products on route from Brazil to the U.S. may make stops along the way, which is why the FDA wants to to sample imports from all countries.

This also means we're likely to see higher orange juice prices quite soon. According to Reuters, U.S. orange juice futures jumped almost 11 percent to an all-time high on Tuesday, and juice industry analysts say they could keep climbing.

UPDATE 5:26 P.M.

The FDA has clarified that it does not currently have safety concerns about the U.S. orange juice supply because of the amounts of carbendazim that have been reported are so low. The agency will alert the public and remove the products from the market if that changes, a spokewoman tells NPR.

UPDATE 4:30 P.M.

An initial report from Bloomberg News suggested that the orange juice imports from Brazil had been halted. We later learned from the FDA that they were being held to be tested. Our headline and story have been updated to reflect this change

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