China’s rotten fruit scare is unlikely to bruise US apple juice imports

Maybe just give the kids soda instead?
Maybe just give the kids soda instead?
Image: AP Photo/Amy Sancetta
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Concerns about the safety of juice from China resurfaced this week, after a Chinese newspaper published an in-depth report accusing three major manufacturers of using rancid fruit in their products. China is the world’s largest supplier of fruit juice concentrates, and provides over 70% of the apple juice consumed in the US, the world’s largest market.

Will the fear of moldy juice prompt US shoppers to reject “made in China” apple juice products? Will toddlers be forced to find a new beverage to fill their sippy cups? Will Congress be forced to consider a strategic apple juice reserve? Probably not—this has all happened before, with very effect.

Using spoiled fruit to make juice can result in high levels of patulin, a toxic mold that survives pasteurization. In April, US supermarket chain Winn Dixie recalled some of its store-brand apple juice because of patulin levels that exceeded FDA limits. It’s unclear from the product’s packaging whether the apples used for the juice came from China; a spokesman did not respond to e-mailed questions.

A preliminary investigation by the Anhui Province Food and Drug Administration Department this week found no moldy fruit at two of the three manufacturers’ plants (link in Chinese) but the probe is still ongoing.

Recent history suggests that moldy fruitgate won’t make much of a dent in China’s apple juice exports. In 2011, US fears about the safety of apple juice from Chinese suppliers were sparked by television host “Dr. Oz” and Consumer Reports, who both found high levels of inorganic arsenic in some apple juice brands. Inorganic arsenic can come from residue from pesticides that were still being used in China less than 20 years ago.

The studies prompted a Food and Drug Administration investigation, followed by new guidelines for apple juice arsenic levels, not to mention anxiety among parents. But despite the concerns, imports of fruit and vegetable juices from China increased substantially from 2011 to 2012, according to data from the USDA, rising 14% to $635 million. They are still going strong, totaling $343 million in the first seven months of 2013.

Jennifer Chiu contributed reporting.