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Fruit Squeeze

Perhaps officials of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration feared a repeat of the Tylenol poisonings of 1982. Consumers may have been more worried than they let on about the safety of supermarket produce due to the controversy over pesticide traces on apples (although that is a separate issue). Whatever the reason, everyone seems to have overreacted to the discovery that two grapes shipped to this country from Chile bore traces of cyanide.

The FDA’s initial response to warnings that Chilean fruit bound for the United States had been poisoned--made in two anonymous telephone calls to the U.S. embassy in Santiago--was low-key. FDA inspectors began testing Chilean fruit at the port of Philadelphia, where most of it is shipped by way of the Panama Canal. The problems began after cyanide traces were found in two grapes out of the 12,000 cratesful sampled. FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young immediately banned all Chilean fruit imports, warned supermarkets to remove Chilean fruit from their produce bins and urged consumers to throw out any fruit unless they were sure where it came from.

The urgency and breadth of Young’s warning seemed to engender a near-panic that has yet to subside. From the East Coast to Long Beach, shiploads of fruit are backed up waiting to be unloaded. Markets and produce wholesalers have been left with tons of Chilean grapes, berries and melons that may rot before they can be sold. In Chile, thousands of farm laborers and other workers are idled at the peak of the country’s summer harvest season. Financial losses could run to tens of millions of dollars.

Given the volume of fresh produce and prepared products that is now shipped around the world, it is impossible to guarantee the absolute safety of everything sold in a store or supermarket. Certainly Americans cannot give up eating fruit, which is a healthy and important part of any well-balanced diet. Instead, consumers must exercise a modicum of caution in making their purchases. And government agencies like the FDA must try to better focus their efforts to prevent a single, isolated incident from causing such widespread damage in the future. In this instance, a legitimate concern over a shipment of grapes from one farm, which was quickly identified, should not have affected all the other fruit exported from Chile. But that is, we admit, hindsight. The FDA’s reaction was understandable, but the agency should carefully evaluate its procedures to assure this incident is not repeated without good cause.

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