The Food and Drug Administration has detained several shipments of imported orange juice after finding traces of an illegal fungicide.
The government says the juice is safe to drink. But the fungicide, carbendazim, is not approved for use in the United States, so any juice that contains small amounts of it must be detained. It is used in other countries to combat mold on orange trees.
The FDA said Friday it had detained about 11 percent of orange juice and orange juice concentrate imports since it started testing for the fungicide earlier this month. The agency detained nine of 80 total shipments at the border, while importers withdrew two additional shipments from import after learning of the FDA testing. Importers have 90 days to export or destroy the product once it is detained.
The government started testing for the chemical at the border after Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, which owns juice brands Minute Maid and Simply Orange, reported finding the chemical in its own juice and in competing juices. Most orange juice products made by Coke and other companies contain a blend of juice from different sources, including Brazil, where the fungicide is approved for use. All of the products detained or withdrawn were from Brazil and Canada.
A spokesman for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said Canada purchases orange juice products from other countries, including Brazil, and then exports it to the United States. No oranges are grown in Canada.
"Canadian exporters do purchase product from other countries where the carbendazim can be a factor," said Rod Lister, a spokesman for the Canadian agency. "One of the main suppliers of orange juice for export is Brazil."
Test results released by the FDA showed the highest levels found were in a Jan. 4 shipment from Brazil. That shipment contained up to 52 parts per billion of the fungicide, still far below the European Union's maximum residue level of 200 parts per billion. Most of the shipments detained had much lower amounts.
The U.S. government has not established an official maximum residue level for carbendazim in orange juice, but the Environmental Protection Agency has said a detailed risk assessment of carbendazim showed no risks at up to 80 parts per billion. EPA officials have said they believe the real levels of concern are probably thousands of times higher.
Still, the FDA has said it will detain any orange juice imports that contain more than 10 parts per billion of the chemical. Amounts below that aren't detectable, agency officials said.
The agency is also testing samples from domestic manufacturers, but those results have not been released.
In a letter to the Juice Products Association this month, FDA official Nega Beru asked the industry to ensure that suppliers in Brazil, the world's largest orange producer, and other countries stop using the fungicide.
"If the agency identifies orange juice with carbendazim at levels that present a public health risk, it will alert the public and take the necessary action to ensure that the product is removed from the market," he said.
The FDA's testing has created some volatility on the stock market in the past month. The price of orange juice has risen 9 percent since the FDA first announced the discovery of the fungicide Jan. 9 and went as high as $2.1995 per pound before falling back. Orange juice futures rose 4.3 cents, or 2.1 percent, on the news of the positive tests Friday and ended at $2.109 per pound on the New York commodities market.
FDA updates on fungicide in orange juice: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/Product-SpecificInformation/FruitsVegetablesJuices/ucm288004.htm
AP Business Writer Sandy Shore contributed from New York. Find Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick