United States Bans Chilean Fruit After Cyanide Scare Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By impounding Chilean fruit at ports in reaction to the discovery of two poisoned imported grapes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration disrupted the domestic produce market and the Chilean fruit industry.

Summary of Event

Thousands of tons of fruit from Chile were withdrawn from the shelves of supermarkets after an inspection at the port of Philadelphia in 1989 found two grapes that had been poisoned with cyanide. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) immediately launched an investigation and started to impound all fresh fruit arriving from Chile. In an announcement made on March 13, 1989, the FDA advised consumers to discard any fruit if they were not sure that it came from somewhere other than Chile. Fruit, Chilean Chilean fruit cyanide scare Food and Drug Administration;Chilean fruit cyanide scare Food safety [kw]United States Bans Chilean Fruit After Cyanide Scare (Mar. 13-Apr. 15, 1989) [kw]Bans Chilean Fruit After Cyanide Scare, United States (Mar. 13-Apr. 15, 1989) [kw]Chilean Fruit After Cyanide Scare, United States Bans (Mar. 13-Apr. 15, 1989) [kw]Cyanide Scare, United States Bans Chilean Fruit After (Mar. 13-Apr. 15, 1989) Fruit, Chilean Chilean fruit cyanide scare Food and Drug Administration;Chilean fruit cyanide scare Food safety [g]North America;Mar. 13-Apr. 15, 1989: United States Bans Chilean Fruit After Cyanide Scare[07200] [g]United States;Mar. 13-Apr. 15, 1989: United States Bans Chilean Fruit After Cyanide Scare[07200] [c]Agriculture;Mar. 13-Apr. 15, 1989: United States Bans Chilean Fruit After Cyanide Scare[07200] [c]Trade and commerce;Mar. 13-Apr. 15, 1989: United States Bans Chilean Fruit After Cyanide Scare[07200] Baker, James Young, Frank E. Errázuriz, Hernán Felipe

FDA commissioner Frank E. Young thought it better to be overly cautious than not cautious enough, and he took the view that it was best for the public to know of any danger. He also stated that there was no need to panic. The poison had been found in just two grapes unloaded in Philadelphia, and no reports of death or sickness from eating fruit had been received. Nevertheless, the FDA’s advice to discard fruit and the impounding applied to all fruit from Chile, not only grapes.

Estimates from the American Produce Association, American Produce Association which represented sixty-five importers of produce from Chile, indicated that the removal of suspect Chilean fruit from markets involved two million cases. At that time of year, Chile was a principal supplier of fresh fruit to the United States, with shipments including large quantities of peaches, nectarines, soft fruits, melons, and Granny Smith apples as well as grapes.

Scientific analysis could not reveal how much poison was originally inserted into the two grapes. The amount of cyanide detected in them once they had reached Philadelphia was tiny, not even enough to cause illness in a small child. The two contaminated grapes were in a sample of more than two thousand bunches checked. Even two contaminations in a sample indicated deliberate tampering, but the case could still have been an isolated one.

The FDA’s action was prompted by more than the scientific evidence. Some special inspections of fruit from Chile had been ordered a few days before the discovery of the contaminated grapes, after anonymous telephone warnings were received in Santiago, Chile. The embassies of both the United States and Japan in Chile had received calls on March 2 from a person stating that fruit bound for the United States from Chile had been poisoned as a protest against unspecified policies of Chilean president Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto The FDA responded with extra inspections at ports of entry. After finding no contamination, the agency issued a statement saying that the calls had been a hoax. The statement was published in Washington, D.C., and Santiago. A caller to the U.S. embassy on March 9 then responded that there had been no hoax, and further intensive inspections uncovered the two tainted grapes.

As tons of grapes were removed from supermarket shelves, some people wondered whether the FDA had overreacted. In California, an importer ate grapes at a news conference to publicize that viewpoint. Only 0.003 milligrams of cyanide had been detected in each of the two tainted grapes. It would take 25 milligrams of cyanide to make an adult sick; 200 milligrams constitutes a lethal dose. It was troubling, however, that the anonymous caller had correctly warned that the poison would be injected into the fruit. This meant, first, that washing the fruit would not eliminate the threat and, second, that any poisoning of hard-skinned fruit, such as cantaloupes or apples, would be harder to detect by inspection than had been the tampering with grapes.

The inspection team assembled by the FDA, including staff from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, numbered several hundred. Inspectors descended on ports of entry, including Philadelphia, New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, effectively putting all Chilean produce in quarantine. Some 65 percent of the goods entered at Philadelphia. The contaminated grapes had been unloaded from the Almeria Star, which was still in dock on March 15. Three more freighters were due to arrive with about 1.5 million cases of produce. In the spring season, about half a million cases of produce per day were expected to arrive in the United States from Chile.

The first four days of what was effectively an embargo against Chilean produce cost as much as $100 million, at wholesale prices, in lost business. The greatest impact was felt by growers and packers in Chile. Importers, distributors, and retailers in the United States also suffered losses. Good estimates of the damage were difficult to make because the insurance position was unclear in the absence of a legally mandated recall and because in the fruit and vegetable trade many deals are conducted on handshakes, without written contracts.

In Chile, some official statements were critical of the FDA action, but the Chilean government moved swiftly to work with the United States on a solution to the crisis. On March 15, Foreign Minister Hernán Felipe Errázuriz arrived in Washington for urgent talks with U.S. government officials. Chile’s food export industry was worth $700 million per year, second in importance only to copper as a means of earning foreign exchange, and was very reliant on trade with the United States. It was in immediate danger of being brought to a standstill. Exports of fruit to Japan and Canada also had been affected.

The Exporters’ Association in Chile had already decided to submit all fruit voluntarily to government inspection before shipment. This halted the movement of goods out of Valparaíso, the main port. Trucks loaded with fruit deliveries to the port were halted, and, back on the farms, pickers were sent home. The whole industry was paralyzed by March 16, which was about halfway through the season. Some 47 million crates of fruit had been shipped so far out of what, before the crisis, was expected to be 103 million.

Meanwhile, hundreds of inspectors in the United States had found no poisoned produce beyond the original two grapes. As the inspections continued, a joint statement was issued in Washington by Foreign Minister Errázuriz and Secretary of State James Baker. The statement, issued on March 16, said that the two parties had agreed to work together to deal with the crisis. A team of American inspectors was sent to Chile to review the security procedures of farmers and exporters.

Just one day later, on March 17, FDA commissioner Young announced that Chilean fruit would be returning to American grocery stores. Inspectors would check 5 percent of incoming grapes and berries instead of the previous 1 percent. No decision had yet been made on hard fruits. Shopkeepers were advised to check each batch received. State governments were asked to supervise the destruction of fruit that already had been delivered to distributors and retailers. Errázuriz, speaking from the White House, said that Chile welcomed these developments.

After four days, the 5 percent inspection was extended to nectarines, peaches, and plums; melons were still excluded from importation. Meanwhile, the first grapes released from inspection at Philadelphia arrived in markets on March 23. Reports indicated that customers had little hesitation about buying them.

On April 15, 1989, the FDA announced the end of all restrictions and special measures applying to Chilean fruit. No poisoned produce had been detected except for the two grapes found on March 12. Inspections would revert to the 1 percent check; things were back to normal.

Significance

The crisis over fruit from Chile lasted only a month, and the embargo itself was in place for only eleven days, but the immediate impacts of these events were severe, with effects felt not only in Chile and the United States but also in other countries. The long-term impacts, in contrast, were small, as normalcy resumed after the emergency and no new regulations on food were proposed as a result of it.

In Chile, the effects of the crisis were instant and drastic. In that country, 5 percent of the population is employed in farming, which is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. The fruit-growing business had been in a stage of dynamic growth when the interruption occurred. Exports to the United States in 1988-1989 were expected to be 16 percent higher than in the previous year and 40 percent higher than in the 1984-1985 season. Chile’s climate was ideal for this kind of crop, and the seasons were the opposite of those in the United States, making a good complementary fit. Chile could provide certain kinds of produce exactly when they were out of season in the United States. The U.S. market was the largest destination for Chilean fruit, so the embargo was a catastrophe for Chile. Twenty thousand Chileans were out of work within two weeks of the poison scare, and commercial losses were estimated at $200 million or more.

Effects were also immediate elsewhere. In Canada and Japan, health officials warned against eating fruit from Chile, effectively stopping its sale. In Hong Kong, inspectors seized imports from Chile and stopped the sale of grapes. In the European Community, the response was more restrained, and only in Denmark were Chilean imports taken from the shelves of stores.

In the United States, one effect of the poisoned grapes, aside from the impacts on the market described above, was a reinforced concern for food safety generally. In late March, 1989, both Time and Newsweek had cover stories on food safety that captured the public’s mood. Building on existing concern about the use of alar on apples, the grape scare prompted discussion of a whole variety of risks from food, including environmental contaminants, pesticide residues, additives, and foodborne disease.

A related issue that also was discussed in earnest at this time was the weighing of risks against costs. This discussion spilled over to other areas, including new drugs, airline safety, and terrorism. The balancing of risks between openness and secrecy when anonymous threats are made, between the needs of patients and the dangers of untried drugs, and between risks from contamination and costs of inspection were among the issues discussed. Some commentators argued that an immediate threat, such as poisoned food, requires a response perhaps erring on the side of caution, whereas threats such as carcinogens, which have distant and uncertain effects, are a different matter. The airing of these considerations about the different kinds of risks promoted public interest and awareness but did not lead to any changes in FDA procedures.

A curious postscript occurred more than three years after the Chilean grape incident. Late in 1992, Chilean fruit growers filed a lawsuit claiming $330 million in damages from the U.S. government for the effects of the embargo of March, 1989. There had been, it seems, irregularities in the testing procedures used at the FDA. The laboratory in Philadelphia destroyed the tested grapes, contrary to FDA regulations, according to an article by Herbert Burkholz in The New Republic. Other grapes from the sample showed no signs of cyanide poisoning, even though cyanide is a migratory substance that probably would have spread to other grapes if the poison had been injected days earlier in Chile or on the ship in transit. Cyanide is used in laboratories to calibrate instruments and to spike samples to guard against false negative results. It is therefore possible that the contaminated grapes were injected with cyanide by the FDA itself. Fruit, Chilean Chilean fruit cyanide scare Food and Drug Administration;Chilean fruit cyanide scare Food safety

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, James A., and Hernán Felipe Errázuriz. “Chilean Fruit Exports to the U.S.” Department of State Bulletin 89 (May, 1989): 85. Presents the official statements of March 16 and March 29 on the impounding and its relaxation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burkholz, Herbert. “Killer Grapes.” The New Republic, November 30, 1992, 13-15. Reports on the lawsuit against the U.S. government by Chilean growers and the suspicions that grounded it. Suggests that the FDA panicked when faced with the possible nightmare scenario of terrorist tampering with food supplies and reveals that testing procedures within the FDA were not followed properly for the two tainted grapes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cowan, Richard. “More than Sour Grapes Behind East-West Clash.” Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report 46 (March 26, 1988): 795. Explains the politically charged tension between growers’ interests in California and importers’ interests in New Jersey.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Engel, Eduardo. “Poisoned Grapes, Mad Cows and Protectionism.” In Latin America and the Global Economy: Export Trade and the Threat of Protection, edited by Ronald Fischer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Discusses and contrasts the steps taken by the U.S. government in response to the Chilean fruit cyanide scare and those taken by the United Kingdom regarding the possibility of mad cow disease in 1996.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grigg, Bill, and Vern Modeland. “The Cyanide Scare: A Tale of Two Grapes.” FDA Consumer 23 (July/August, 1989): 7-11. Gives an interesting view of the crisis and the response from inside the FDA. Relates the scientists’ handling of the crisis and includes details of the signs of cyanide and the testing procedure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Frank E. “Weighing Food Safety Risks.” FDA Consumer 23 (September, 1989): 8-11. Presents a broad view of the FDA approach to risks from contamination and other causes in food and drugs. Covers the alar scare, additives, and salmonella as well as the grape episode. Addresses the different kinds of risk and the issue of the public’s right to be informed.

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