Guest Blog: Linda Bonvie--Comparing apples and oranges

As I wrote this, it looked perfectly normal: Times New Roman 12pt. When I hit preview, it is in all caps. I have no idea why, and I can't make it stop. I am not shouting at you.

We've all seen the ads where a mom reaches past a myriad of orange juice cartons, and is handed a fresh carton by a guy in an orange grove. I know those ads are bull, so why was I surprised to discover there is nothing "fresh-squeezed" in orange juice, (the fresh flavor is added just before packaging) and that there is enough pesticide residue in our orange juice supply to alarm the powers that be at Coca Cola?

So okay, duped again. We like to feel good about healthy food and beverage choices. Orange juice is full of vitamin C and calcium, and only a trace or two of a not-so-healthy ingredient. And then there was that reassuring network news interview with a Walter Middy-like spokesperson from the FDA. He promised that there is no need to worry. In my case, that's probably true. I am a child of the 50s, no doubt, still brimming with residual DDT & malathion, and can remember stirring that glowing orange glob of coloring into a white brick of oleo-margarine to make it look like butter. So why would I choose to do a post about orange juice? Because I was talking to my friend Bill Bonvie, Linda's brother, about it and he told me Walter Middy the 2nd used to work for Monsanto. That reassuring spokesperson worked for the largest producer of pesticides in the world, the same company that is trying to genetically modified everything we eat. Really? I was outraged.

 From Bill:

"Michael R. Taylor (or "Mike Taylor," as he was recently referred to by Dr. Richard Besser of ABC News, as in "I just got off the phone with Mike Taylor at FDA") is your quintessential revolving-door bureaucrat, having gone from being a staff attorney for the FDA to attorney for Monsanto, back to the FDA where he was largely responsible for the approval sans safety testing of Monsanto's genetically engineered crops, which were deemed to be "substantially equivalent" to conventional ones, as well as the administering of rBGH, the Monsanto growth hormone many researchers consider carcinogenic, to dairy herds to make them produce more milk. He subsequently went to the USDA as administrator for Food Safety and Inspection, then returned to Monsanto in another position (vice president for public policy), only to pop up again (surprise, surprise!) at the FDA under the Obama administration as deputy commissioner for foods, or "food safety czar." This guy gets around!

Comparing oranges and apples: the whole story about a prohibited pesticide

As you probably know by now, a  fungicide banned in the U.S. called carbendazim was found in imported orange juice. Discovered by Minute Maid – the orange juice giant owned by Coca Cola — the find was reported to the Food and Drug Administration. The agency swooped into action, writing letters to the Juice Products Association, testing orange juice and assuring us that the levels detected pose no hazard.

At the same time, the FDA declared current supplies of orange juice A-OK to drink, it also said orange juice arriving at the U.S. border  with any “measurable level” of the chemical  would not be allowed entry.
So which is it? The juice is safe if it’s in the store, but not if it hasn’t crossed the border? And what about the fact that residues of the banned chemical, also known as MBC, are allowed in other fruits that make up popular juices such as apples, cherries and grapes, and found to be perfectly fine by the FDA?
First, we need a little primer in what’s going on here, and to do that, we need to skip over to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a minute.

When it comes to pesticides in foods, the EPA can be thought of as the judge and the FDA as the cops. In other words, the EPA sets what are called “tolerances,” the legal limits of pesticides allowed as residues in food, while the FDA enforces that limit, with the authority to stop and recall foods that contain detectable residues above what the EPA has established. (Note that the word “safe” isn’t used here. A “tolerance” is basically what’s been determined at one point or another to be a level at which a chemical has “no effect.”)

Back to the orange juice: MBC, a nasty chemical that until several years ago was allowed to be used on Florida oranges, is currently on the banned list, considered “illegal” by virtue of there being no EPA tolerance set for it. So it makes sense that the FDA would stop all orange juice heading our way that contains it.

What doesn’t make sense is a sort of  FDA slight of hand that allows for MBC residues to be present in numerous commodities, even though the chemical itself has no food uses.

A case of ‘pesticide identity theft’?
How can this be, I hear you asking. Well MBC has a close relative called thiophanate methyl (TPM for short) that is allowed to be used on crops – quite a few, in fact. And after it’s used on strawberries, apples and blueberries, for example, it starts to degrade and turns into other chemicals, one of them being the banned MBC. In fact, when testing for residues of the permitted TPM, they look for, and measure it as … MBC.

In a attempt to show how safe our orange juice is, in fact,, a private consulting firm founded by a former FDA employee, issued a press release with the headline: “FDA cracks down on Carbendazim (MBC) in OJ but ignores it it other foods…”

The moral of this appears to be that our news is creatively delivered to us. While headlines from papers all over the county and news anchors are talking about an “orange juice recall” and discussing whether it is warranted or not, what reporters aren’t telling us is that the same dangerous and banned chemical that caused the OJ scare is allowed on many other fruits used to make juice – with “permitted” residues at much higher levels than what caused all the to-do with the oranges.

Of course, such pesticides could be avoided by buying nothing except certified organic juices, but for a great many shoppers, that’s simply not an affordable option, since organic juices at best tend to be considerably more costly than their conventional counterparts.

For most consumers, a more practical solution would be for public pressure to force the regulators to abandon the double standard now being used in regard to MBC by prohibiting use of any other chemical that morphs into it as well – in effect, a form of  ‘pesticide identity theft’.

Telling us all about this, of course, should be the media’s job – but right now, rather than getting the whole story from them, all we’re hearing is what the FDA has to say about the chemical in oranges, while apples are given a pass. To say nothing of strawberries and blueberries.

Linda Bonvie,

Linda Bonvie is an author, and consumer advocate with over 20 years of experience researching and writing about food safety, health and environmental issues.  She is the co-author of Chemical-Free Kids: How to Safeguard Your Child’s Diet and Environment (2003) and Chemical-Free Kids: the Organic Sequel (2008), as well as The Stevia Story: a tale of incredible sweetness and intrigue (1997). Articles she has co-authored with her brother Bill have been published in a number of magazines and many major newspapers. (One of these, an expose on the spraying of passengers on international flights with a toxic pesticide, which was published back in 1993, led to the requirement being dropped by a couple dozen countries after then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pena became personally involved in the issue.)