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FDA Balanced Concerns in Fruit Decision

March 15, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Food and Drug Administration’s decision to warn consumers against eating Chilean fruit was a balance of concerns about the economic impact of such a decision and the health and safety of Americans, an agency spokesman said Wednesday.

″This is a thing of great magnitude,″ said FDA spokesman Don McLearn.

″It has great economic potential,″ he said, but added, ″you only had two grapes and they weren’t sufficient to do that much harm.″

However, he continued, ″you had a probable confirmation that it was a tampering, not a hoax, and then how far do you go with a decision based on that evidence? That’s very tough.″

The decision was made by FDA Commissioner Frank Young on Monday and that evening, the agency issued a warning to consumers not to eat any fruit from Chile and urging stores to remove all Chilean fruit from their shelves.

The announcement came some 24 hours after FDA inspectors discovered two suspicious-looking red grapes that tests later confirmed to contain traces of cyanide, according to a chronology of events as outlined by McLearn.

The saga began March 2 when the U.S. embassy in Santiago received a call from a Spanish-speaking male who threatened to inject cyanide into Chile’s export fruit. The message was passed on to the U.S. Customs Service, which put out a cable to its field units, which began detaining ships with Chilean fruit in U.S. ports.

A government source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the caller indicated in his threat that his motive was ″to focus attention on the lower classes of Chile.″

The FDA learned of the threat late in the afternoon on March 3, McLearn said. The following day, a Saturday, Young called together a group from his regulatory affairs staff, emergency office and the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said McLearn, who attended the meeting that lasted into the evening.

Young agreed to continue the detention the Customs Service had begun throughout the weekend, while he talked to officials at the State Department, Customs Service, the Chilean ambassador and fruit importers ″to try to figure out the magnitude of this and grapple with the decision of what to do,″ the spokesman said.

But by the end of the weekend, the State Department had concluded the threat was a hoax, he said.

″We felt at that point there was no reason for a full detention but that we would do surveillance,″ McLearn said. ″At that point we were prepared to let the fruit through,″ and issued a release about the hoax.

A story about the call to the embassy and the determination that it was a hoax appeared in a Santiago newspaper, and on March 8, the caller - ″we assume it was the same guy,″ the FDA spokesman said - phoned the embassy again and said the threat was not a hoax.

The FDA heightened its inspections at each of the U.S. ports where Chilean fruit enters the United States, McLearn said.

Most of the fruit enters through the port at Philadelphia, and there the Almeria Star had just arrived with the next major import from Chile, he said. It was on that ship that inspectors, making a visual inspection last Sunday, found two grapes that were discolored and had crystalline rings around puncture marks.

The grapes were sent to an FDA laboratory in Philadelphia, which made an initial finding that the grapes contained cyanide. They were then sent to another FDA lab in Cincinnati, which confirmed traces of the poison in the grapes, McLearn said.

The spokesman said did not know when the tests were completed. He said Young ″made the decision Sunday night that he had to make a decision and he made the decision Monday,″ though he could not give a time.

″He soul searched and soul searched,″ McLearn said of Young.

During the night Sunday and on Monday, Young talked to members of his policy board, including the agency’s attorney, trying to determine a legal and most appropriate action to take, the spokesman said.

″Even though you make a decision that you’re going to do something ... you still have to decide the magnitude of how far you go. Do you just detain grapes or other fruit also?″ McLearn said. He also indicated that Young had considered detaining other Chilean produce as well, but declined to discuss such details of Young’s decision-making.

Young also considered how much force to put behind his action, McLearn said. Though the FDA lacked the legal authority t order stores to withdraw the Chilean imports off the shelves, ″you can exert pressure,″ he said.

After the decision was made Monday, Young spent time ″making sure all the proper bases were touched - the Public Health Service, the Department of Health and Human Services, the White House ... they all had to know,″ McLearn said.

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