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Orange juice fungicide concern may spike prices

WASHINGTON - The Food and Drug Administration says it will step up testing for a fungicide that has been found in low levels in orange juice.

FDA officials said they aren't concerned about the safety of the juice but will increase testing to make sure the contamination isn't a problem. In a letter to the juice industry Monday, the agency said that an unnamed juice company contacted FDA in late December and said it had detected low levels of the fungicide carbendazim in the company's own orange juice and also in its competitors' juice. Fungicides are used to control fungi or fungal spores in agriculture.

Orange juice futures surged nearly 11 percent on Tuesday, gaining 20 cents to close at about $2.08 cents a pound. Investors are concerned that increased testing could pinch juice supplies. TransWorld Futures analyst Robert Rutger said the supply questions were enough to send prices higher, even though current inventories are relatively healthy.

Carbendazim is not currently approved for use on citrus in the U.S., but is used in Brazil, which exports orange juice to the United States. Brazil is the biggest producer of oranges in the world, according to the Agriculture Department.

Top orange juice brands in the U.S. include PepsiCo's Tropicana and Minute Maid, marketed by The Coca-Cola Co. A Minute Maid spokesman declined to comment, referring questions to the Juice Products Association trade group. A spokeswoman for the association said the group had no comment ready by Tuesday evening.

An FDA spokeswoman said the company's testing 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. has not established a maximum residue level for carbendazim in oranges.

In the letter to the Juice Products Association, FDA official Nega Beru said the agency will begin testing shipments of orange juice at the border and will detain any that contain traces of the chemical. Because it is not approved for use in this country, any amount found in food is illegal.

Beru said that because the FDA doesn't believe the levels of residue are harmful, and the agency won't remove any juice currently on store shelves. But he asked the industry to ensure that suppliers in Brazil and elsewhere 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 discovery comes after the agency 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.

FDA mulls tighter arsenic restrictions for apple juice

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 favored by thirsty kids.

Patty Lovera of the consumer group Food and Water Watch said the federal government needs to rely on its own testing, not that of the companies.

"The federal government needs to set consistent, meaningful, enforceable standards for all toxins," she said.

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