The Bush Administration on Friday lifted its five-day ban on Chilean grapes and berries, announcing that it would release the huge, impounded stockpiles at U.S. ports after enhanced inspections but that most Chilean produce now held by markets and distributors must be destroyed.
Frank E. Young, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said that a new system of increased inspections, coupled with stepped-up security measures in Chile, will ensure the “maximal layer of safety” of fruit from the South American nation, while stemming further economic losses to the Chilean and U.S. economies.
However, he warned, “it is impossible to ensure 100% safety.” He urged grocers and consumers to carefully examine grapes and berries for possible contamination and to discard fruit that is bruised, overly ripe or shows signs of suspicious damage.
He estimated that Chilean fruit--which makes up much of the fruit sold in the United States in winter months--would be back on store shelves within five to nine days.
U.S. officials, who have been under intense pressure to end the crisis, announced the plan despite word that another telephone threat was received Friday in Santiago, warning that additional fruit exports will be poisoned.
The fruit ban originally was ordered after two earlier telephone threats and the discovery of cyanide-tainted grapes in a Chilean cargo unloaded in Philadelphia.
Young said he was advised of the new threat by the State Department about midday Friday, and he briefly considered postponing the announcement on ending the ban. But, he said, “every time a call comes in, do you stop everything that’s going on?”
The FDA chief said he is confident the timing of the latest call could have no bearing on the fruit already here.
“Everything now will be at the new testing level, and all boats leaving from Chile will be subject to the new testing level,” coupled with “increased security measures and increased inspection measures in Chile,” he said.
Young discussed the plan in a briefing after President Bush told reporters that the embargo had been justified, although “it has caused some economic hardship that I regret.”
The ban announced Monday emptied store shelves nationwide of all Chilean-produced fruit, which is a crucial part of Chile’s export economy. Sixty-five percent of that nation’s fruit crop is shipped to the United States.
Bush, speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Washington from Colorado, added: “I think when the health of the American people might be threat ened, you’ve got to take prudent action.”
Chilean Foreign Minister Hernan Felipe Errazuriz, at the White House for a meeting with Vice President Dan Quayle, called the U.S. decision “a workable solution,” adding: “It takes into account the interest of the U.S. citizens and the Chileans.”
The new system will allow the release of the bulk of the Chilean fruit now being held at U.S. ports. The largest component is 918,000 cases of grapes, one of the fruits that can be cleared after inspection.
FDA officials said they have not decided what to do about the tons of larger-sized Chilean fruits that have been impounded, such as nectarines, peaches, apples and melons. These were not included in the new procedures because--unlike small berries--they are capable of holding much larger amounts of poison and if contaminated, are much more likely to cause injury or death.
“These fruits have a lot longer shelf life and we want to do some more laboratory experiments,” Young said. “We chose to do this (release the fruit), bit by bit.”
He said that he could not say when the larger fruits will be back on the market. “I would not be able to predict,” he said. “I would not want to speculate.”
As for the fruit that left U.S. ports and is being held by grocery stores, distributors and other facilities, officials said that destruction probably would be necessary.
The FDA said it would be the responsibility of the states to monitor the destruction, but indicated that the federal government may create some mechanism to salvage some of the produce if it can be returned for inspection.
Officials also confirmed that the fruit, although banned from sale in the United States, could be shipped legally to other countries where no such restrictions apply.
John McClung, a spokesman for the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Assn., called it “disheartening that hundreds of millions of dollars of fruit” might have to be destroyed, but that the members of his organization recognize that such action is important to restore “consumer confidence.”
He added: “It is very unclear how much product is out there between the docks and the retailers, in cold storage facilities and in the pipeline in between. We just don’t know.”
Despite the federal announcement, there was considerable confusion among all of the parties involved--including the FDA--about precisely how the new inspection system will work. Young himself was unable Friday to spell out the technical details.