TONS OF GRAPES WERE DESTROYED AFTER TRACES OF CYANIDE LED TO BANS ON CHILEAN FRUIT
TONS OF GRAPES WERE DESTROYED AFTER TRACES OF CYANIDE LED TO BANS ON CHILEAN FRUIT
The sign in one Toronto grocery store was blunt: “No Chilean produce sold here.” And similar signs went up in stores across Canada after the U.S. and Canadian governments closed their borders to Chilean fruit on March 13 and ordered retailers to remove all Chilean produce from their shelves. That dramatic move came after officials of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed that traces of poisonous cyanide were found in two Chilean red seedless grapes. While many Canadians hailed the government’s action as suitable under the circumstances, the ban—which covered grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, raspberries and Granny Smith apples—hit fruit wholesalers and retailers hard. Then, after five days, U.S. officials announced that they were lifting the embargo at least on grapes, berries and vegetables, saying that they had devised a new inspection program for Chilean produce. Because most Chilean produce imports to Canada pass through the United States, Ottawa quickly followed suit.
Still, both the U.S. and Canadian governments ordered that Chilean fruit already in the two countries be destroyed. U.S. officials had discovered the tainted grapes in Philadelphia after the U.S. Embassy in the Chilean capital of Santiago had received anonymous phone calls on March 2 and 10 warning that Chilean fruit being shipped to North America would be poisoned. During the five-day ban, U.S. officials did not discover any other contaminated fruit. But about 15 minutes before the announcement that the ban would be lifted, U.S. Embassy officials in Santiago reported that they had received another anonymous call threatening further tampering with Chilean exports. And fruit industry spokesmen said that the cyanide scare—and the loss of consumer confidence in Chilean produce—had irreversibly harmed the
South American country’s second-largest export industry. “We must wait and see what the reaction of the U.S. consumer will be,” said Mariano Rodriguez, production manager of David del Curto, Chile’s largest fruit-packing and export firm. “The ban has clearly caused damage beyond repair.”
In the wake of the first phone calls to the embassy in Santiago, U.S. authorities immediately increased security at the ports of New
York City and Philadelphia—through which nearly all Chilean produce imports are routed. On March 13, FDA officials warned their counterparts at Health and Welfare Canada that they had discovered potentially contaminated grapes in Philadelphia—then confirmed that two grapes had been punctured and contained three-tenths of a milligram of cyanide each—a poison that in doses of 200 to 300 mg can be fatal to adults. Officials from Canada and the United States—followed later by those from Japan, Denmark, Hong Kong and West Germany—immediately implemented a full ban on Chilean produce while the FDA tried to determine how much of the fruit had been affected. But by week’s end, U.S. officials had inspected 13,000 crates of Chilean produce without finding any further traces of cyanide. As a result, both the United States and Canada lifted the embargo on Chilean produce. But in Chile, where the harvest was in full swing, the fiveday embargo had a devastating effect on the country. Workers were laid off at orchards and farms throughout the country, and crates of produce piled up at ports. The original anonymous callers had claimed that the sabotage was meant to call attention to the suffering of Chileans under the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But Chilean officials said that the subsequent ban was excessive. The country’s ambassador to Canada, Jorge
Berguno, said that there was “no evidence that the grapes were tampered with in Chile.” He added, “If we want to take action, ban all grapes coming from Philadelphia.”
That sentiment was shared by many Canadian fruit distributors, who import about 10 per cent of their stock from Chile—including 70 per cent of all grapes. For them, the embargo and the order to destroy all Chilean produce in Canada meant staggering losses. Officials at the Canadian Fruit Wholesalers Association in Ottawa told Maclean ’s that Canadian wholesalers had stocks of 10 million pounds of Chilean produce that had to be destroyed—a loss of $10 million. Holly Botner, a marketing employee of Botner Fruits Ltd. in Montreal, said that when she first heard about the ban, she did not take it seriously. “The government overreacted,” said Botner. But, as the week wore on, she added, it had the effect of making the public
mistrust all fruit, not just Chilean imports. “Something like this is a disaster for the entire industry,” said Botner.
But Canadian government officials were painfully aware of the political fallout from the handling of past food scares. In December, 1987, the federal health department waited for eight days before issuing a nationwide alert about toxic Prince Edward Island mussels. Partly as a result of that delay, two people died and many became seriously ill. Two years earlier, John Fraser, then fisheries minister, came under heavy fire after he failed to halt the sale of cans of tuna that ministry officials knew to be rancid. Now, explained a former senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office last week, the government has “a takeno-chances approach, which holds that it is always better, from a political point of view as well as a health point of view, to overreact. The lessons were really learned on the mussels
crisis. Now the reaction time is faster.” Meanwhile, consumer groups said that government officials had little option. “The safety of Canadians has to come first,” said Ruth Robinson, national president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada. “Consumers have to have confidence that what is out there is safe.” Robinson added that her group was pleased with the government reaction. “They acted quickly, told us what they were doing and told us what we should do,” she said. “Confusion and worry is worse than decisive action.” But Chilean politicians and businessmen strongly criticized the North American reaction—and even suggested that U.S. competitors were responsible for the scare. Chile’s growing season runs from January to late April, and U.S. consumers buy two-thirds of the country’s fruit exports, including 90 per cent of the table grapes. But in mid-April, California grapes also come onto the North American market and compete with Chilean produce. “This could ruin the Chilean economy,” said Sergio Onofre Jarpa, the leader of the National Renovation Party. “There are U.S. economic interests at play here against Chile.”
Indeed, theories about who had made the threat and who put poison in the two grapes abounded last week. Chilean Interior Minister Carlos Caceres blamed the Chilean Communist party, and navy commander-in-chief Admiral José Merino claimed that the situation was another of the Americans’ “dirty tricks,” organized in co-operation with the Communist party.
And for Chile, the ban—and the shadow that it cast over the country’s produce—could not have come at a worse time. More than half of the crop—mostly grapes, apples and pears— remains to be harvested, packed and shipped to world markets. Chile planned to export $960 million worth of fruit this year, accounting for 12 per cent of total exports. But the bans left the economy reeling. Ships in the port of Valparaiso stopped loading Chilean fruit while long lineups of trucks formed around the dock area. Some truckers took their fruit back to packers and producers, who, in turn, stopped picking and processing.
Supporters and critics of the Pinochet regime united in condemnation of the apparent sabotage. Last year, fruit exports brought in $720 million and are a vital source of foreign currency for payment of the country’s $20billion foreign debt. Canada alone imported more than $84 million worth of Chilean produce, most of which was table grapes ($60 million), apples ($11 million), cherries ($7 million) and peaches ($4 million). But now, even with the lifting of the ban, many vendors, like Frank Cammissa, manager of the Greenview Fruit Market in Toronto, say that while they will continue to import from Chile, the volume will not be as great. Said Cammissa: “Even next year, the majority of people will still be afraid.”
Indeed, despite health officials’ assurances that the amount of cyanide found in the grapes was essentially harmless, many Canadians were clearly affected by the scare. “As a consumer, it is pretty upsetting,” said Corrie Sirota, of Côte-St-Luc, a Montreal neighborhood. “You can’t trust anything anymore.” Others, including Vancouver schoolteacher Carol Thornton, say that they will never buy produce from Chile again. “It can take one thing like this and I lose my confidence,” Thornton declared. Exporters estimate that it will take at least two years to repair the damage done to Chile by the incident. But that estimate may not take into account the fact that, even with the lifting of the ban and the return of “Product of Chile” signs in Canadian stores, consumer confidence may be impossible to fully restore.
NORA UNDERWOOD with LAKE SAGARIS in Santiago, DEREK WOLFF in Vancouver, BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa and DAN BURKE in Montreal
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