WASHINGTON - Coca-Cola Co. acknowledged Thursday it was the company that alerted federal regulators about low levels of fungicide in its own orange juice and in competitors' juice, prompting juice prices to rise and increased government testing for the residue.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have said orange juice is safe to drink and the levels found are below levels of concern.
Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, which makes the Minute Maid and Simply Orange brands of orange juice, said Thursday it had notified FDA of the low levels of the fungicide carbendazim in the company's orange juice and in competitors' juice. The FDA had said Monday that an unnamed company had told the agency about the fungicide and confirmed Wednesday the company was Coca-Cola.
Neither the FDA nor the company said which orange juice products tested positive. Carbendazim is not currently approved for use on citrus in the United States, but it is used to combat mold on orange trees in Brazil, which exports orange juice to the United States. Fungicides are used to control fungi or fungal spores in agriculture.
The FDA said Coca-Cola found levels up to 35 parts per billion of the fungicide, far below the European Union's maximum residue level of 200 parts per billion. The U.S. government has not established an official maximum residue level for carbendazim in orange juice.
The Environmental Protection Agency has said a risk assessment of carbendazim showed no risks at up to 80 parts per billion, but officials believe real levels of concern are much higher.
"The residues we have seen reported at 35 parts per billion are thousands of times below the concentration that would raise safety concerns," said EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara.
Coca-Cola spokesman Dan Schafer said: "This is an industry issue that affects every company that produces products in the U.S. using orange juice from Brazil."
Most orange juice products made by Coke and other companies contain a blend of juice from different sources including Brazil. In addition to Coca-Cola, Pepsico Inc.'s Tropicana brand is one of the largest U.S. orange juice producers. A spokesman for Tropicana declined to say whether the company had done its own testing for the fungicide.
The FDA has begun testing shipments of orange juice at the border and will detain any that contain more than 10 parts per billion of the chemical. Because the fungicide is not approved for use in the United States, any amount found in food is illegal, but FDA spokeswoman Siobhan Delancey said any amount below 10 parts per billion isn't measurable. All tests released by the agency so far have been negative, she said.
The agency said it won't remove any juice currently on store shelves because it doesn't believe the levels of residue are harmful, though that juice is also being tested.
In the letter to the Juice Products Association earlier this week, 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.
Orange juice for March delivery fell 10 cents, or 5.3 percent, to $1.781 per pound on Wednesday. Coca-Cola Co. shares fell 49 cents to close at $67.57 and Pepsico Inc. shares fell 39 cents to close at $64.62.
The fungicide discovery comes after the FDA said it would also step up testing for arsenic in apple juice. FDA officials said last year that the agency is considering tightening restrictions for the levels of arsenic allowed in the juice after consumer groups pushed the agency to crack down on the contaminant.
Studies show that apple juice has generally low levels of arsenic, and the government says it is safe to drink. But consumer advocates say the FDA is allowing too much of the chemical which is sometimes natural, sometimes man made into apple juices often consumed by children.
Patty Lovera of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch said the FDA and the Agriculture Department, which also oversees food imports, should have a better system for tracking potential contaminants in food.
"It seems like we keep playing catch up chemical by chemical," she said. "As we import more and more, this isn't going to be the last time this happens."