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URGENT Chilean Fruit Ban Lifted

March 17, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration said today it would allow Chilean fruit back on the U.S. market, ending a five-day public health scare sparked by the discovery of traces of cyanide in two grapes.

″With these and other safeguards in place we believe that this program will provide the maximum feasible safety for fruit from Chile,″ FDA Commissioner Frank Young told a news conference after outlining a plan for stepped up inspections in this country and abroad.

Young said he had ″high confidence of detecting anything if something was there.″ But he conceded, ″It is impossible to insure 100 percent safety″ and he urged grocers and consumers to make their own checks when Chilean fruit reappears on the shelves in five to nine days.

The plan was announced despite a third poisoning threat received by the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, Young said. He said he got word of the latest threat, which was made today, a short time before he announced the plan. He said the latest threat doesn’t raise any more concern than the first two.

Young outlined the administration’s plans for ending the five-day public health scare after President Bush told reporters the quarantine of Chilean fruit had been justified despite any economic hardship it imposed.

″It has cost some economic hardship that I regret,″ Bush said.

″I think when the health of the American people might be threatened you’ve got to take prudent action,″ the president told reporters aboard Air Force One en route back to Washington.

At a crowded news conference a few minutes later, Young said, ″We are now ready to reintroduce Chilean fruit beginning with grapes, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.″

He said that since the small amounts of cyanide were found in two grapes over the weekend, no additional evidence of contamination has been uncovered. He said 13,000 crates of fruit have been inspected since the two poisoned grapes were found.

Young said Chilean fruit en route to the United States would be subjected to increased inspection, and said the Chilean government would take safety measures before allowing produce to leave the country.

He said fruit in some ships in port in Philadelphia also would be inspected.

But he said, ″Any Chilean fruit in the hands of importers...will be destroyed to eliminate fruit that cannot be practically inspected.″

The discovery of the two poisoned grapes touched off a major public health care in this country and difficulties of a different sort in Chile, where fruit is a major export and where thousands of agricultural workers have been threatened with the loss of their jobs during the peak harvest season. The government has sent high-level diplomats to this country in recent days to try and speed a resolution of the problem.

Chilean Foreign Minister Hernan Felipe Errazuriz called the U.S. decision ″a workable solution.″

″It takes into account the interest of the U.S. citizens and the Chileans, the consumers and the workers from Chile,″ he said at the White House, where he met with Vice President Dan Quayle.

Young dismissed questions about who would bear the cost of the lost fruit and the inspections. ″The day I start to look at health with regard to somebody’s left hip pocket or pocketbook, then I am not focusing enough in regard to safety,″ he said.

In addition to the cost to importers, consumers may also feel the pinch at the checkout lines. Economist Donald Ratajczak of Georgia State University said fruit prices on supermarket shelves will rise, at least temporarily, because of the Chilean scare.

″Most of what will be left on the shelves will be hothouse grown (domestically) and that will be more expensive,″ he said. Young said the FDA would borrow inspectors from other agencies to help with future inspections. He said that would begin with the Agriculture Department, where Secretary Clayton Yeutter said he had agreed to loan as many as 200 inspectors to help.

Young said inspectors would examine 5 percent of the fruit that arrives in this country from Chile - a dramatic increase from the normal 1 percent.

At the same time, he called on consumers to conduct their own inspections and look for ″injection marks, unusual appearance, discoloration or chemical or almond-like smells.″

He said Chile had already undertaken steps to ″eliminate opportunities for tampering from the Chilean fields to the United States.″

Errazuriz met Thursday with Secretary of State James Baker and called for ″swift action″ to avoid further economic and social turmoil in Chile, according to a joint communique issued after the meeting.

The statement said 200,000 Chileans and their families face ″unemployment and even destitution.″

The two sides agreed to address the problem on an ″urgent basis,″ recognizing ″the danger to the Chilean economy and the need to protect the safety of American consumers.″

As part of an effort to cool tempers in Chile, the administration has sought to assure Chileans that the sales suspension was not politically motivated but rather was aimed at safeguarding the health and safety of Americans.

As Chilean fruit continued to pile up at airports and docks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said a small team of FDA inspectors was to be sent to Chile to check security on Chilean fruit.

Inspectors at ports in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Miami have examined 6,859 cases of grapes and nearly 4,000 cases of other fruits: honeydew melons, nectarines, apples, raspberries, pears, cantaloupes, plums, peaches, seedless watermelon, Juan Canary Melons and blackberries.

In Miami, Robert Aders, the president of the Food Marketing Institute, said the entire food industry will be hurt by the discovery of cyanide in Chilean produce and cancer-causing chemicals in apples.

″The loss will probably be felt throughout the system,″ he said.

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