The Federal Drug Administration’s move to ban imports of foreign orange juice products after the discovery of fungicide contamination in shipments from Brazil will have little immediate impact on the Rio Grande Valley citrus industry, but depending on the length of that ban and subsequent consumer reaction to potential food safety issues, growers and juice processors could see either a positive or negative response in the months ahead, according to experts.

On Jan. 11, the FDA announced it was temporarily halting all imports of foreign orange juice over fears some foreign orange juice, especially juice imported from Brazil, contains traces of carbendazim, a fungicide banned in the United States.

Fungicides like carbendazim are used to control fungi or fungal spores in agriculture. Carbendazim is still legal in Brazil, and the European Union allows foods to contain up to 200 parts per billion of the fungicide. As recently as 2008, the fungicide was used to kill black fungus on Florida oranges, but recent studies linked it to increased rates of cancers and infertility, causing the FDA to ban use of the chemical in all U.S. food products.

Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual in Mission, says he doesn’t expect FDA’s ban to have a major impact on Texas citrus, but says it is too early to know for certain. For one, the Valley citrus industry is dominated by grapefruit acres versus orange orchards, a 70 percent to 30 percent mix; secondly, Prewett says most Valley oranges are sold as fresh fruit and not for juice.

But Texas AgriLife Extension Service specialist Dr. Juan Anciso in the Lower Rio Grande Valley says buyers “are in a bit of a panic” over the ban, and that could cause trouble on the market.

“I would imagine buyers are in a panic mode at the moment and they will be watching developments carefully as FDA conducts its investigation. We may well see a spike in orange juice prices as a result. But in the end I think FDA and Brazil will reach an agreement on tolerance levels. Until then, the problem could get bigger,” he says.

Anciso says the discovery of Carbendazim in imported fruit is really no surprise. For one thing the fungicide is legal in many countries, including Brazil, and even if the use of the fungicide was suspended, there would trace amounts left over from packing and processing plants, and careful FDA inspections would discover those trace amounts for years to come.

Tolerance level

“I don’t know that we will ever see a day when super-trace amounts are not detected in imported fruits, so I think FDA will eventually come to terms with it and an agreement will be reached setting reasonable tolerance levels,” he adds.

Texas AgriLife Extension program specialist Monte Nesbitt in College Station agrees.

“Fungicides are used in many trees and in processing plants to control potentially dangerous micro organisms,” he says. Proper use can be an effective way to ensure food safety while improper levels could prove to be a health risk. “The term fungicide sounds troubling to many, but it is a fact of production and post-harvest handling of food products, and I think the current FDA development will be a short term issue. It may cause a spike in prices, however, as processors scramble to find juice as a result.”

Experts seem to agree the bigger issue may be consumer response to the ban. If consumers react negatively and demand for orange juice should fall, prices for both imported and U.S. grown citrus could be adversely affected. If “savvy consumers” boycott only imported orange juice and fresh fruit, then the demand for U.S. citrus may see a healthy spike, a positive development for U.S. growers.

“But the real winner could turn out to be the U.S. organic grower as consumers attempt to avoid chemical treatment of commercial citrus altogether,” says Anciso. “It could be a good time to be in the organic orange business.”