Several weeks ago, a fungicide called carbendazim was found in imported orange juice from Brazil. It’s a toxic pesticide that’s not supposed to be in orange juice, but evidently Brazilian growers thought they could secretly use it. A juice maker, Coca-Cola, found the problem and, to their credit, reported it to the FDA. The FDA was caught unawares and has never tested for carbendazim in imported or domestic orange juice, according to the FDA website. This shows holes in the regulatory system that freighters full of OJ fit through on a daily basis.
Preventing toxic pesticides from entering the US is essential to public health. Our regulatory framework was set up decades ago to control chemical use in domestic crops but is outmanned by the barrage of food imports that enter the US each day. As I discussed with Dr. Oz on this week’s show, the detection of carbendazim in orange juice highlights the problem. This fungicide is closely related to the phased out benomyl, eliminated over concerns that it causes birth defects. Carbendazim also causes birth defects in lab animals and is probably the reason benomyl does so since benomyl breaks down to carbendazim in the body. Both fungicides also damage male fertility and cause liver cancer.
FDA has responded to this information by disallowing carbendazim use on food crops in the US and has no acceptable tolerances for this fungicide on imports such as orange juice. In other words, if any carbendazim is found in imported orange juice, that’s a reason to seize the lot and return it to sender. That system works well if FDA is vigilant and thorough in its testing. However, FDA’s lack of testing encourages pesticide abuse overseas and puts us all in jeopardy.
There is little point in regulating bad-actor pesticides in consumer countries like the US when you do nothing to stop the manufacture and sale of these chemicals elsewhere. This creates the “circle of poison” in which banned chemicals can circle the globe and end up in our diet anyway since they are readily available in producer countries which have lax regulation.
Most of our orange juice comes from Brazil. Yes, even the “not from concentrate” variety. Carbendazim use on citrus in Brazil becomes a reproductive and cancer question in the US because we don’t have the resources to carefully check imports, and the juice industry can’t be counted on to do the job. Fortunately, the concentrations of carbendazim found in orange juice so far are below what would constitute a frank health risk. But they are not zero and indicate an unregulated source of toxic pesticide whose concentrations may vary over time.
The US has identified safer ways to limit mold growth on citrus in Florida and California. The US should demand the same from our overseas suppliers. Until FDA gets the situation under control, you can limit your exposure potential by: a) drinking domestic instead of imported orange juice (the label must state the country of origin); b) drinking certified 100% organic juice; or c) skipping the juice and eating fresh oranges instead. They are likely to be grown closer to home and you don’t have to deal with pasteurized, deaerated, concentrated and deflavored (they add back a “flavor pack”) juice product that’s been stored for who knows how long and shipped across the world.