- Domingo 29 de Novembro de 2020
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The great orange juice farce

By Gary Mead

Its January, so lets go slightly mad if only for a few days. Extreme moves in that most arcane and scantily traded of agricommodity futures frozen concentrated orange juice (FCOJ) occur with clockwork regularity in the month of January, normally driven by frost damage hits Florida headlines. This year theres an extra twist in the form of Brazil fungicide hits US imports scare stories, put out by newswires anxious to stir things up during a quiet month. They should know better.

On Tuesday this week the FCOJ March 2012 contract on ICE Futures US touched a record high of $2.07/pound, following some ill-digested reporting that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had acknowledged receiving a letter that alerted it to the use of the fungicide carbendazim in some orange juice products. Coca-Cola, which markets Brazilian orange juice in the US under its Minute Maid brand, has now said it alerted the FDA, following some inquiries from worried consumers. Coca-Cola merely acted responsibly: but the probable damage to consumer confidence in the brand thanks to some hysterical reporting of this issue is incalculable.

Essentially, Brazilian orange producers use carbendazim to combat black spot disease, a type of mould that grows on oranges and can damage them beyond commercial use. Its entirely legal to use carbendazim in Brazil (and many other countries although not the US); the chemical is highly toxic but only at very high doses. The International Program on Chemical Safety (part of the World Health Organization) has a detailed scientific paper (available here) that discusses the LD50 (the exposure level sufficient to kill 50% of certain animals given the chemical) and estimated that the acute reference dose (ArfD, the maximum acceptable dose of a toxic substance) of carbendazim for the general human population was 0.5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.

According to the FDA, the levels of carbendazim found in imported Brazilian orange juice were in the low parts-per-billion range. At 10 parts-per-billion contamination you would need to drink a gallon of juice to be exposed to 40 billionths of a kilo of carbendazim. Nor does carbendazim accumulate in the body over time. A different WHO paper found that studies in rats given the chemical showed that more than 98% of an oral dose left the body (via excretions) within 72 hours.

So this is or ought to be a big non-story. This doesnt really matter for the newswires, which are already off hunting for the next sensational splash, or ways to give this one extra legs. In the haste, little attention will be paid to the fact that the FDA has said its not going to remove orange juice containing the regular, reported low levels of what is, in such low concentrations, a highly useful chemical, although it will test the imported juice and step in if the concentrations are found to be above the FDAs 10 parts-per-billion maximum. Brazil, whose orange juice exports to the US are worth around $2 billion/year, will be hoping that the hysteria doesnt spread. There are alternatives to carbendazim but they are more costly and less effective. So if the US orange-juice drinker wants to make completely sure that what they are drinking has no toxicity whatsoever, they will have to pay more for the privilege. Indeed, I sniff a marketing niche already opening up premium-price juice that brands itself carbendazim-free

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