A ban on Chilean fruit spread rapidly today after two Chilean red seedless grapes containing cyanide, apparently as a result of tampering, were found in the United States.
After the discovery of the two poisoned grapes in Philadelphia following anonymous telephoned threats, the United States and Canada said Monday that they are holding up imports of Chilean fruit. U.S. and Canadian stores pulled all Chilean fruit--from grapes to raspberries--off their produce counters today, and consumers were advised not to eat it.
Japan, West Germany, Denmark and Hong Kong also announced today that they are closing their markets to Chilean fruit. In Brussels, the European Community put all member countries on alert for fruit imports from the South American nation.
President Augusto Pinochet’s military government blamed Communist terrorists for sabotaging Chile’s $600-million-a-year fruit export industry and took steps to guard shipments from the farms to the ports. The Chilean Communist Party denied involvement.
“About 15% of our total force is working on the Chilean product at this time,” said U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Frank Young. “We have looked at, for example, over 1,299 cases of grapes.”
Young said that although other Chilean fruit was also being inspected, no other poisoning cases were found. The tainted grapes were discovered Sunday at the port of Philadelphia, and the FDA intercepted all shipments from Chile for testing after issuing the warning Monday.
The poison was confirmed by lab tests on two punctured grapes. The amount of cyanide was far less than would sicken a child but it was above the level known to occur naturally, the FDA said.
In Santiago, Chilean Agriculture Minister Jaime de la Sotta met today with Pinochet and was to travel to Washington tonight for meetings with U.S. officials.
The scare comes two weeks after a man phoned the U.S. Embassy in Santiago and said export fruit would be poisoned. That call, and a second one, were viewed as probable hoaxes, but the FDA intensified inspections as a precaution.
Virtually all fruit, except for bananas and citrus, sold in the United States at this time of year comes from Chile, the FDA said.
Most retailers reacted quickly.
“We just pulled everything off the shelf,” said Kenny Nasal, manager of an Acme supermarket in South Philadelphia.
Barry Scher, a spokesman for Giant Food, said all Chilean fruits were taken off shelves at its 146 stores in Washington, Maryland and Virginia. They included grapes, raspberries, plums, peaches and nectarines.
“Right now it’s in the back room,” he said. “We’re going to be contacting the supplier. . . . We don’t know what will happen yet.”
In New York City, the huge Hunts Point market, the main source of produce for the metropolitan area, quarantined 150 tons of Chilean produce until the scare has been resolved, officials said.
The scare could cripple the Chilean fruit industry. Grapes were the biggest crop exported from Chile to the United States in 1988, accounting for $207.5 million of the $285.1 million in fruit and vegetable imports.