Chile's foreign minister asked the United States for an immediate solution to the international fruit poisoning scare Thursday, and officials announced that a U.S. inspection team would fly to Chile to check its security measures.
The Food and Drug Administration announced the decision to send a small team of inspectors but did not say when it would leave. The agency held another round of talks, which have included leaders from Chile and the produce industry, to try to decide what to do with fruit already detained.All Chilean fruit began being withheld from stores or removed from shelves in the United States when the FDA reported at the start of the business week that two grapes in a shipment to Philadelphia had traces of cyanide poison. Canada took similar action, and Japan temporarily banned Chilean fruit.
With FDA Commissioner Frank Young still advising consumers not to eat fruit unless they were sure it was not from Chile, industry and government leaders in the affected nations continued pushing Wednesday for a quick decision on what to do next - as the economic damage grew hourly.
"We need an urgent solution. We need it today because this is a very serious problem," said Chilean Foreign Minister Her nan Felipe Errazuriz after a meeting with Secretary of State James Baker.
Chile's agriculture minister and ambassador to the United States accompanied Errazuriz. They emerged along with Baker, who acknowledged the situation was "a difficult problem."
The U.S. action has drawn bitter criticism from several quarters in Chile. With losses already estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars and employment layoffs said to number 200,000, the head of one state-owned bank blamed the move on "leftists in the State Department."
It still was not known Thursday who tainted the grapes, however; Chile blamed its Communist Party, which denied involvement. The poison was discovered after two telephoned threats to the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, Chile.
In recent years, Chile has become one of the leading suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables during the Northern Hemisphere winter. March has been one of the South American country's peak months for fruit shipping and processing.
The scare thus struck at a time when the U.S. food industry depends heavily on imported fruits and vegetables. From February through mid-April, virtually all grapes sold in the United States come from Chile as well as supplies of peaches, pears, nectarines, plums, cherries, apricots and some berries.
On Wednesday Chile suspended all harvesting and export of grapes for 72 hours pending investigation of a poisoning threat against exports to Japan.
Inspectors in the United States had examined more than 10,800 crates of grapes and 11 other types of fruit shipped from Chile and had not found any additional contamination, though. No cases of fruit poisoning were reported.
The inspections included all the fruit on the Almeria Star, the ship that carried the poisoned grapes. Laboratory tests were being conducted on samples taken from the ship's cargo, the FDA said, and "other inspections continue in ports in Los Angeles, Miami and other ships waiting in port in Philadelphia."
Philadelphia City Councilman Lucien Blackwell said 3,000 longshoremen were out of work in his city because of the scare.
Asked about having U.S. inspectors check 10 percent of Chilean production, Errazuriz said such a "rate in my point of view is realistic" but noted the United States had not offered such assistance.