U.S. and Chilean officials working to resolve the Chilean fruit crisis indicated Thursday that they are nearing an agreement on a plan to protect the safety of future imports from that nation.
But they said that they remain stymied over what to do with all the produce that has arrived here since the discovery of two poisoned grapes earlier this week.
Under increasing diplomatic pressure to lift its ban on Chilean fruit, the federal Food and Drug Administration said it hopes to make an announcement today.
“The Chileans are promising very good security and also a good level of inspection there, but there are still a lot of problems to be worked out about what to do with stuff that’s already here, or on its way here,” one FDA official said.
Earlier in the day, Chilean Foreign Minister Hernan Felipe Errazuriz met with Secretary of State James A. Baker III to stress how critical fruit exports are to Chile’s economy. “We need an urgent solution today,” he told reporters after the session.
The two leaders later issued a joint statement saying that they recognize “the danger to the Chilean economy and the need to protect the safety of consumers” and that the two countries are working “to swiftly return the situation to normal. . . .”
Baker, speaking with reporters after the meeting, emphasized that the U.S. ban against Chilean fruit “has not been taken in any way on political grounds. It has been taken strictly as a health and safety measure and I think that the foreign minister understands that.”
Asked what message he would send to the Chileans who are participating in angry demonstrations against the United States, Baker replied: “It would be that this is an action that is difficult for the United States. . . . But, after all, the paramount concern must be the safety of our citizens.”
In Santiago, Chilean President Augusto Pinochet attacked the U.S. embargo, saying that the minute quantity of cyanide found in two Chilean red seedless grapes is “hardly enough to kill a mouse. . . . The United States must realize that the measure it took was excessive.”
Fresh fruit is second only to copper in Chile’s export earnings. About 65% of its fruit exports, including grapes, melons, apples, peaches and berries, goes to the United States.
As expected, the State Department announced that a team of experts from the FDA will go to Santiago immediately “to offer their services to their Chilean counterparts” in enhancing their security and inspection systems to prevent the deliberate tainting of fruit.
Chilean officials told the FDA that they have begun to initiate their own new measures, according to Ronald Bown, executive director of the Chilean Exporters Assn.
“We are building up a security chain from the packing facilities up to the ports in the United States,” Bown said. He said, for example, that Chilean fruit-packing facilities are now requiring workers to change into clothes provided for them at the work site to prevent dangerous materials from being carried inside. Also, he said, trucks carrying fruit to Chilean ports no longer will be allowed to make any stops en route.
While federal officials and importers reportedly were nearing agreement on security measures to protect future shipments, the disposition of already-delivered fruit stacking up in ports and warehouses remained uncertain.
Health officials noted that the two poisoned grapes were found in inspections of a sample that represents less than 5% of the Chilean fruit on the vessel Almeria Star, which docked in Philadelphia Saturday. It was not known whether those were the only two tainted items in the entire shipment or whether the sample might reflect the extent to which the 95% uninspected amount might also be tainted.
Inspecting all of the 364,524 crates of grapes, nectarines, apples and other fruit unloaded from the Almeria Star would be impossible, officials said, as would extensively checking the huge fruit cargoes of the other vessels that have arrived or are en route.
Before releasing the produce or lifting the overall ban, the government will have to be sure that the food poses no significant threat. “It’s going to take a high degree of security in knowing that the stuff you’re putting out is safe,” said Don McLearn, deputy associate FDA commissioner.
Meanwhile, there has been no breakthrough in the investigation into the source of the cyanide contamination, which officials assume occurred before the grapes reached the United States. The episode began several weeks ago after two anonymous telephone calls to the U.S. Embassy in Chile threatening to poison fruit destined for the United States.
The Philadelphia office of the FBI is coordinating the investigation with the FDA, but FBI spokesman Mike Thompson said that agents do not yet know where the tampering occurred.
“I don’t think there’s a sense yet,” Thompson said. “There’s no way of telling. I don’t know if we’ll ever know.”
Said Theresa Young, FDA spokesman in Philadelphia: “The only thing we know is it didn’t happen in Philadelphia or at the port.”
Bown of the Chilean Exporters insisted that Chilean officials believe the episode was “an isolated action that has already achieved it’s goal.” The culprit “wanted to hurt our economy and we have big damage,” he said. ". . .therefore, we think right now it is all over.”
McLearn said that in pondering what to do with the impounded fruit, U.S. and Chilean representatives are considering possibly making a decision “based on some of these fruits being less likely to cause harm than others.”
Grapes, for example, “won’t hold enough cyanide to kill someone, but melons could be loaded. In theory, you could come up with a plan to release some fruits that wouldn’t kill people and not release others that could. But this is one single minuscule factor that is under consideration.” Again, he emphasized: “We’re not going to go along with anything that’s not safe.”
McLearn said that the discussions centered on “some kind of plan that builds in security at the shipping place, the docks in Chile,” adding that “food is tough” to protect.
“You don’t have codes put on in the factory and you can’t put a tamper-proof package on a grape,” he said.
Times staff writer Bob Drogin, reporting from Philadelphia, contributed to this article.