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Piece by Piece, Chilean Fruit Is Returning

Times Staff Writer

It was the sort of Southern California day that makes you think about going to the beach--warm, gloriously sunny and perfect for spring break.

In La Habra, Tracy Zaragoza and Oscar Cobian spent Thursday indoors, bundled up in heavy jackets and wearing white plastic gloves. They and three high school classmates had driven the 2 hours from Oxnard to Christian Salvesen, a cold-storage warehouse.

There, they joined about 30 other workers who have spent much of this week tediously inspecting Chilean fruit, piece by piece, so it can eventually find its way to markets and consumers’ kitchens.

Since Monday, roughly 80,000 pounds of grapes, pears and nectarines have been scrutinized at the warehouse by temporary workers looking for puncture marks, traces of white powder or any odd-looking blemish.

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In compliance with new U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration rules, they are spot-checking a small portion--about 5%--of the thousands of cases of fruit that have been stacked 35 feet high for about 2 weeks since cyanide was first discovered in two Chilean grapes.

Working in Silence

When the FDA cleared shipment of the fruit last Friday, David Oppenheimer California Inc. of Wilmington brought in the workers. Oppenheimer distributes about one-third of all Chilean fruit that moves through the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors.

Under the watchful eye of the FDA, long lines of the workers begin early in the morning, tearing the lids off wooden crates and taking out the fruit. They work in silence, picking up the fruit, turning it, studying it, then carefully placing it back in the boxes.

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So far, the 32-degree temperature in the warehouse has kept most of the fruit firm and fresh. Only a random grape or nectarine has spoiled and had to be tossed out.

It’s rare when someone spots something that seems unusual. When it does happen, the suspect fruit is given to the FDA representatives--who can either make an on-the-spot decision or send the fruit out to be tested.

Jim McLaughlin of Anaheim, who has spent much of this week scrutinizing hundreds of bunches of Chilean green grapes, said he has raised questions about several pieces of fruit. Each time, he says, the FDA representative pulled the fruit aside. “What she does with ‘em, I don’t know.”

Nearby, the high school students from Oxnard are huddled over a table of wooden crates, turning and inspecting hundreds of nectarines. The students came to La Habra at the invitation of Tracy Zaragoza, whose father owns a storage plant in Oxnard.

Perfect Puncture

The big news came in the early afternoon Thursday. That was when Oscar Cobian found a nectarine that appeared to have a perfect puncture mark. “It looked exactly like a needle puncture,” Cobian told a reporter. “She (the FDA representative) said that was what we’re looking for.”

The FDA representative pulled aside the entire crate of nectarines, the students said. And then Cobian and Zaragoza continued their search, pulling open a new box of fruit.

“Hopefully tonight or tomorrow we can start shipping this stuff out,” Don A. Foster, office manager for Christian Salvesen, said late Thursday. All that’s needed now, he added, is FDA approval.

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