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FUROR OVER FRUIT FROM CHILE : A Few Bad Grapes May Spoil Outlook for State’s Importers

Times Staff Writer

Stevedores in Los Angeles temporarily refused to unload a refrigerated freighter from Chile on Tuesday as dockworkers, fruit wholesalers, grocers and growers confronted the government’s new warning against tainted fruit.

The dockworkers relented later in the day after government inspectors declared the cargo safe for handling.

The cargo was unloaded, but it remains detained at the Port of Los Angeles. Like tons of Chilean fruit detained in ports all over the world, this load of assorted fruits faces an uncertain future even as more fruit is on its way to U.S. ports.

Meanwhile, at a cold storage plant in City of Industry, a frustrated importer, Richard Eastes, criticized the government’s broad action and, in a display for the press, ate a bunch of red seedless grapes from Chile.

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While Eastes’ company, David Oppenheimer-California, and other importers cooperated with the government, Eastes clearly was unhappy at the broadness of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decision on Monday to hold up all imports of Chilean fruit.

“When we had the Tylenol scare they didn’t ban all aspirin,” he said. “Here they found two berries and condemned the whole fruit industry of Chile.”

Nonetheless, Eastes and his fellow importers went along with the FDA decision, even though the agency has yet to issue a formal embargo on Chilean fruit.

The American Produce Assn., which represents virtually all importers of Chilean produce, said its members are joining in the fruit recall and working with the FDA to set up a procedure for checking and certifying future shipments.

However, the Chilean fruit-shipping season is in its fifth week, with the pace of shipments increasing. Less than half the anticipated shipments have been received, according to Chile’s agricultural ministry.

‘Damage Control’

Eastes’ firm, which brings in about a third of the 293 million pounds of winter fruit expected through the end of April, awaits the arrival of the freighter Canadian at the neighboring Port of Long Beach this evening.

The Canadian carries a cargo that is now doubly troubled: It contains the season’s first load of green Granny Smith apples at a time a number of school districts, including Los Angeles City Unified, have banned all apples and apple products for fear that children might be harmed by residues of a little-used growth regulating chemical, daminozide, sold under the brand name Alar. (Eastes said the Chilean apples were not treated with the substance, which is more commonly applied to red apples and softer varieties of green apples to slow ripening and prolong crispness. Less than 5% of the current U.S. apple crop was treated with the chemical.)

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Another importer with fruit on the Canadian is Pandol Bros., a major importer and exporter based in Delano. “We’re in damage control right now,” said Darrel Fulmer, vice president for marketing.

“It’s devastating to the industry,” Fulmer said, “and we’re very concerned that terrorism may have found poisoned food as a forum to get their views out. It’s just frightening--two berries of grapes in one box, and look at the result!”

David Michou, regional vice president of Stevedoring Services of America in Long Beach, which contracts to load and unload cargo, including that from the Reefer Creole, said it is too early yet to assess the impact of the FDA action on port employment. So far, he said, it has created “small disruptions.”

Meanwhile, the FDA actions were of great concern to California fruit growers, many of whom were gathered in Palm Springs for the California Table Grape & Tree Fruit League annual meeting at the Palm Springs Marquis Hotel. The group represents about 90% of the state’s peach, nectarine, plum and table grape growers.

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Most expressed concern that the action may negatively affect sales of California fruit crops, many of which will arrive in markets by May.

“It scares me to death,” said Martin Zaninovich, a table grape grower from Delano. “If it can happen to the Chileans, then it can happen to us. . . . Acts of terrorism in the food supply are a frightening situation.”

Zaninovich said that when any such recall is ordered, significant financial losses usually follow because produce is highly perishable and cannot withstand prolonged storage while the issue is resolved.

Steve Biswell of Nash de Camp Co. in Visalia markets both Chilean and California table grapes. As such, he has been frequently sought out here for information on the tampering incident. Biswell has little to offer colleagues in the produce industry.

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“How the consumer takes this episode could be very detrimental for Chilean imports . . . and I don’t look for this situation to help the California fruit growers much either,” he said. “Can we recover? We’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

The Chilean grape harvest extends until the end of April. The harvest is almost exactly the opposite of that of California. Some growers and shippers here, in fact, credit the Chileans for sustaining consumer interest in fruit such as peaches, nectarines and grapes throughout the year.

“The Chileans do an excellent job,” said Cliff Sadoian, a Dinuba-based grower. “They may even enhance our product by having the fruit available the year-round.”

Likewise, the Chileans’ problem may also hurt this state’s produce sector, he said.

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“The public perception is of fruit in general,” he said. “They don’t know, or care, from where a particular commodity comes.”

Others believe that the FDA’s ability to find two grapes apparently injected with cyanide out of 100,000 clusters of the fruit proves that there are safeguards built into the food supply.

“We need to get that message across, that the ability of the federal government to find two berries that were sabotaged means that the system works and it didn’t fail us,” said Micky George of George Bros. Inc. in Sultana, Calif.

Nevertheless, he said, consumer fears generated from this issue may be transferred to California commodities in the coming weeks.

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“I don’t view this incident as helpful at all to the domestic situation,” he said. “But that remains to be seen.”

However, the Chileans’ problems may cut a different way, some acknowledged.

“I think consumers would be more confident in California produce now,” Zaninovich said. “In the United States, we have better regulations than in other parts of the world. Maybe the American public will feel better about our products.”

Though he worries about the fallout from the Chilean fruit recall, Sadoian also says it puts things into perspective.

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“Here in California we have the most stringent agricultural standards in the world. Other growers should try as hard as we do to conform to California’s standards so that everyone’s on the same playing field.”

Times staff writers Daniel P. Puzo and Michael Ybarra contributed to this story.

WHERE THEY COME FROM

Suppliers, by percentages, of all grapes consumed in the United States during 1988-89 importation season: California: 68.0% Chile: 27.5% Mexico: 2.5% Arizona: 2.0%

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Source: Chilean Winter Fruit Assn.


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