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FUROR OVER FRUIT FROM CHILE : The Lab : Army of Inspectors, Scientists Needed to Find Poisoned Fruit

Times Staff Writer

Talk about looking for a needle in a haystack.

Based on nothing more than an anonymous tip, 166 U.S. Food and Drug Administration field inspectors and other officials began checking 12,000 out of 362,000 crates of Chilean fruit unloaded from a freighter on the Delaware River. Each time they found a bruised apple, discolored nectarine or punctured grape, they sent it downtown.

There, on Sunday night, the 19 scientists in the FDA labs on the 11th floor of the U.S. Customs building hit pay dirt in two red seedless grapes with puncture marks and distinctive white rings: cyanide sabotage.

“No one said, ‘Eureka,’ ” said FDA lab supervisor John Mietz. Agreed research coordinator Nick Falcone, “I’ve been here so many years, nothing is exciting.”

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If the men in white coats seemed blase, the FDA in Washington was not. The federal agency quickly suspended imports of all fresh fruit from Chile and advised consumers to dump any fruit of unknown origin. The result has been a massive disruption in the nation’s fruit supply.

By Wednesday afternoon, the ship that brought the tainted grapes, the Austasia Line’s 11,093-ton Almeria Star, was already back on the high seas. Many of the field inspectors had returned to their homes in Baltimore, New York and other East Coast ports.

Most of the 362,000 wooden crates of Chilean grapes, apples, peaches and nectarines were stacked on 4,000 banded pallets in the low-slung Tioga Fruit Terminal along the muddy Delaware River in north Philadelphia.

“It should be gone by now,” said pier manager John Hamilton, shaking his head. “This really stops everything for us.”

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Richard Davis, regional FDA director, said field inspectors had finished their work for now. “The fruit will be moved to cold storage,” he said. “No decision has been made on the final disposition of the fruit.”

Nor has anyone decided what to do about the two other ships, the Mikawa Maru and the Reefer Jambu, that docked nearby Tuesday night and Wednesday carrying 600,000 more crates of Chilean fruit. A third ship, the Chopa, is due later this week with another 475,000 crates.

“No decision has been made to offload them,” Davis said. “If they do, our current policy is to examine the fruit for cyanide.”

The FDA began checking fruit from ships here on March 2, after the U.S. Embassy in Chile received the anonymous telephone warning. When a second call came on March 7, the FDA stepped up its inspections. The next day, inspectors sent their first bag of Chilean honeydew melons to the lab. No cyanide was found.

But when the Almeria Star docked on Saturday, the FDA brought in more than 100 inspectors to concentrate on the huge shipment.

Going through the pallets after the ship left Saturday night, the inspectors picked out crate after crate of discolored, bruised or otherwise suspect fruit. By the time they were done, they had sent 30,000 red and white seedless grapes alone up to the FDA’s three labs for further testing.

“Anything that even appeared to be suspicious, they were bringing in,” Mietz said.

The fruit was still arriving in boxes and crates in the lab Wednesday. And several grapes looked suspiciously like the two that tested positive on Sunday.

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Chemist Steven Koniers, 39, for example, found a single grape, apparently punctured and with a discolored ring, waiting on his desk in a small plastic bag first thing Wednesday morning.

“You’ll always find punctures in fruit, from the crates or the handling,” said Koniers, showing a Polaroid photo of the suspect grape. “But you just never know. Happily, it tested negative.”

Surrounded by whirring blenders and shiny beakers, the chemists worked behind closed doors Wednesday, testing hundreds of ripe, green Granny Smith apples on three long lab tables. Nearby, 12 empty crates and boxes marked Asproman S.A. Chile Apples and Thompson S.A. were stacked against the yellow walls.

Using a foot-long cleaver, Koniers carefully sliced a sliver off each apple, then diced it and placed the pieces in a small glass beaker. Each sample was mushed in a blender, then mixed with half a milliliter of sulfuric acid.

A small strip of Cyantesmo paper, which detects hydrocyanic acid and cyanides, was then stuck in each 10-gram sample. “If the paper turns blue, it indicates the presence of cyanide,” Koniers explained as he sliced.

Any that did were sent to the lab across the hall. There, scientists performed Chloramine-T tests, mixing the samples with a reagent and subjecting them to the spectrophotometer. By measuring the absorption of light shone through the sample, the device confirms the presence of cyanide and other compounds. The whole process takes about three hours.

So far, nothing but the two grapes has tested positive for cyanide. That’s fine with the men in white coats.

“I certainly don’t want to find a positive test,” Koniers said. “Nobody likes the thought of tampering with food. But that’s what’s happening.”

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And the impact here is enormous. Philadelphia docks handle 65% of U.S. imports of winter-season fruits from Chile. About 900,000 tons of Chilean fruit were expected to come through the port this year, port officials said.

More than 3,000 people in the area, from longshoremen who unload the ships to delivery truck drivers, depend on the fruit imports for their jobs, officials said. All told, the industry here is worth an estimated $64 million in revenue and wages, and $1 billion in annual retail sales.

“We’re at the absolute height of the season,” said Joseph P. Menta Jr., spokesman for the Philadelphia Port Corp., the city’s maritime agency. “It could not have come at a worse time.”

Officials scrambled to find additional warehouse space since refrigerated warehouses in the area were already full or near capacity.

“The worst-case scenario is that the shipping season could be a disaster for both the Chileans and the Delaware River port community,” said Susan Howland, spokeswoman for the Ports of Philadelphia Maritime Exchange, a trade group.


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