Comparing oranges and apples: the whole story about a prohibited pesticide

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February 7, 2012

As you probably know by now, a  fungicide banned in the U.S. called carbendazim was found in imported orange juice. Discovered by Minute Maid – the orange juice giant owned by Coca Cola — the find was reported to the Food and Drug Administration. The agency swooped into action, writing letters to the Juice Products Association, testing orange juice and assuring us that the levels detected pose no hazard.

At the same time, the FDA declared current supplies of orange juice A-OK to drink, it also said orange juice arriving at the U.S. border  with any “measurable level” of the chemical  would not be allowed entry.

So what is it? The juice is safe if it’s in the store, but not if it hasn’t crossed the border? And what about the fact that residues of the banned chemical, also known as MBC, are allowed in other fruits that make up popular juices such as apples, cherries and grapes, and found to be perfectly fine by the FDA?

First, we need a little primer in what’s going on here, and to do that, we need to skip over to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a minute.

When it comes to pesticides in foods, the EPA can be thought of as the judge and the FDA as the cops. In other words, the EPA sets what are called “tolerances,” the legal limits of pesticides allowed as residues in food, while the FDA enforces that limit, with the authority to stop and recall foods that contain detectible residues above what the EPA has established. (Note that the word “safe” isn’t used here. A “tolerance” is basically what’s been determined at one point or another to be a level at which a chemical has “no effect.”)

Back to the orange juice: MBC, a nasty chemical that until several years ago was allowed to be used on Florida oranges, is currently on the banned list, considered “illegal” by virtue of there being no EPA tolerance set for it. So it makes sense that the FDA would stop all orange juice heading our way that contains it.

What doesn’t make sense is a sort of  FDA slight of hand that allows for MBC residues to be present in numerous commodities, even though the chemical itself has no food uses.

A case of ‘pesticide identity theft’?

How can this be, I hear you asking. Well MBC has a close relative called thiophanate methyl (TPM for short) that is allowed to be used on crops – quite a few, in fact. And after it’s used on strawberries, apples and blueberries, for example, it starts to degrade and turns into other chemicals, one of them being the banned MBC. In fact, when testing for residues of the permitted TPM, they look for, and measure it as … MBC.

In a attempt to show how safe our orange juice is, in fact,, a private consulting firm founded by a former FDA employee, issued a press release with the headline: “FDA cracks down on Carbendazim (MBC) in OJ but ignores it it other foods…”

The moral of this appears to be that our news is creatively delivered to us. While headlines from papers all over the county and news anchors are talking about an “orange juice recall” and discussing whether it is warranted or not, what reporters aren’t telling us is that the same dangerous and banned chemical that caused the OJ scare is allowed on many other fruits used to make juice – with “permitted” residues at much higher levels than what caused all the to-do with the oranges.

Of course, such pesticides could be avoided by buying nothing except certified organic juices, but for a great many shoppers, that’s simply not an affordable option, since organic juices at best tend to be considerably more costly than their conventional counterparts.

For most consumers, a more practical solution would be for public pressure to force the regulators to abandon the double standard now being used in regard to MBC by prohibiting use of any other chemical that morphs into it as well – in effect, a form of  ‘pesticide identity theft’.

Telling us all about this, of course, should be the media’s job – but right now, rather than getting the whole story from them, all we’re hearing is what the FDA has to say about the chemical in oranges, while apples are given a pass. To say nothing of strawberries and blueberries.

Linda Bonvie,