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Friday The 13th, March 1989…
Important Date In Produce History

A longtime participant in the import deal reminds us of a never-to-be-forgotten day 19 years ago:

It was a Friday the 13th in March 1989, that we learned that in the early morning hours the FDA alleged they had found 2 individual Flame seedless grapes had been injected with cyanide in one box out of 190,000 boxes of grapes on a vessel named the Almeria Star.

It was later established in testing performed at UC Davis that at the reported level of cyanide found in the grapes they would have had to be in the possession of the FDA at the time of the contamination, or the test was in fact ‘an error’.

In historical perspective, the Pan Am flight had been blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland by terrorists, and the State Department had reason to believe there was a bomb on board, but failed to warn the public.

The show ‘60 Minutes’ had recently done an ‘expose’ of a growth regulator called Alar that gave red delicious apples their ‘5-point’ characteristics. Lab test had shown that at massive amounts, Alar might cause cancer in rats, and ’60 Minutes’ embarrassed the FDA for ‘failing to protect the public’s food supply.’

No other cyanide was ever found, and it was established at the level it was found, a person would have had to consume several hundred pounds of grapes at one sitting just to become ill.

Upon reflection, it would appear that the powers-to-be in Washington felt it was appropriate to show that both the FDA and State Department were ‘on the job’ to protect the American public from a terrorist plot to poison the public from the country of Chile, then headed by ‘dictator’ Augusto Pinchot.

The debacle cost the industry in excess of $300 million (1989 Dollars), for no good reason.

It seems the use of fear in justifying its actions to protect against terrorism and the whole issues of food safety and how to protect the public have their modern beginnings 19 years ago today.

Let’s hope that someday our society finds the way to make well considered decisions based on the reality of the circumstances.

— Richard A. Eastes
Director of Special Projects
Ballantine Produce Co., Inc.

Many thanks to Rick Eastes for reminding us of such an important date in produce history. We also yearn for a day when decisions are based on reality. Yet it seems unlikely to come very soon.

We are in the midst of the biggest meat recall of all time, yet scarcely any attention is paid to the actual risks of consuming this meat. Most companies simply hopped on the recall-and-destroy band wagon, afraid to be seen in the least bit soft on food safety.

Craig Wilson, the Assistant Vice President of Food Safety and Quality Assurance for Costco, who we’ve spoken to here, was like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, almost the only one to tell the truth:

“The food’s safe,” says Craig Wilson, assistant vice president of food safety and quality assurance at Costco. “We’re going to recall all this food and destroy it. This is morally and ethically wrong.”

We could have used Craig 19 years ago.

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