The clandestine production and sale of adulterated fruit juice is a widespread and highly profitable practice, a review of court cases filed across the country shows -- a practice that is costing U.S. consumers an estimated $1.2 billion a year and exposing them to undisclosed and unapproved chemicals.
Regulators at the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the food industry, had hoped that tainted juice would become less common after the federal prosecution in 1987 of Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp.
Beech-Nut paid a $2 million fine for illegally selling "apple juice" that was nothing more than sweetened water and chemicals. But the recent cases all involved activities that continued long after that landmark case.
And while federal officials say they are committed to pursuing adulteration cases, court exhibits and interviews with investigators and juice industry executives show that enforcement efforts are still haphazard, plagued by inadequate resources and an institutional tradition that has put a low priority on cases that, at least until recently, were not considered a threat to public safety.
Dr. David Kessler, commissioner of the FDA, said Friday that his hTC agency was determined to prosecute juice adulteration cases when it could muster evidence to support a criminal case. "And these are serious prosecutions," he said. "People are going to jail."
But he conceded that, despite past efforts, the juice industry remains a troubling exception to the agency's generally successful efforts to combat food adulteration.
"We still have to be vigilant," he said. "In most cases of adulteration, it turns out to be just economic and nobody gets hurt -- but there is always that potential."
Chemists who specialize in testing food samples estimate that about 10 percent of the country's $12 billion pure-fruit-juice industry, about half of which is made up of orange juice, is adulterated in some way. The most common adulterants are sugar or watery orange byproducts, but in some recent cases, manufacturers have used preservatives not approved as safe for use in juice.