FRESH-JUICE INDUSTRY SOUR ON WARNING RULE BY FDA

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Retailers and the fresh-juice industry opposed to health-risk warning labels on unpasteurized juice -- soon to be required by the Food and Drug Administration -- say they will continue to push federal regulators for modifications in the rules, due to take effect this autumn.The FDA wants to alert consumers that unpasteurized juice could contain harmful, potentially illness-causing

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Retailers and the fresh-juice industry opposed to health-risk warning labels on unpasteurized juice -- soon to be required by the Food and Drug Administration -- say they will continue to push federal regulators for modifications in the rules, due to take effect this autumn.

The FDA wants to alert consumers that unpasteurized juice could contain harmful, potentially illness-causing bacteria. Processors and retailers who squeeze and sell fresh juice argue that the standards to be used in measuring the bacteria, as well as to monitor processing, are not applicable to their products.

Specifically, warning-label opponents say the FDA's measurement method, requiring what's known as a 5-log reduction of bacteria, isn't based on scientific studies involving fresh juice. Rather, the standard is derived from ground beef and water.

Still, the FDA rules exempt anyone from the warning-label mandate if they use this 5-log procedure to significantly reduce the presence of bacteria, according to the opponents, who say separate juice standards must be set.

A second part of the fresh-juice regulation -- how juice processors should undertake a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point inspection program to combat bacteria -- is where the juice industry really hopes to change federal regulators' thinking. The juice HACCP regulation is still in the works and is expected to be issued sometime later this fall.

Part of any HACCP plan requires measuring how well it works to reduce bacterial contamination. Marc Isaacs, chairman of the American Fresh Juice Council, .... said juice makers want the FDA, before imposing a performance measurement standard, to reconsider the actual presence of bacteria in fresh juice and the risks it poses.

"What they want is almost tantamount to requiring pasteurization," said Isaacs, who is also president and chief executive officer of fresh juice processor Sun Orchard Inc., Tempe, Ariz. Pasteurization is taboo in the industry, since officials contend the heat treatment alters the taste and makeup of the juice. In addition, the FDA won't allow pasteurized juice to be labeled "fresh," which is a marketing disadvantage.

Very little is known about bacteria and its presence in the various fruit and vegetable juices, Isaacs continued. "Science has not yet proven what's a comfortable level of microbial reduction of fresh juices."

Juice that's marked with a warning label will turn off consumers, he said.

"It will definitely hurt the fresh-juice industry. We have been working to try and convince the FDA all along that warning labels aren't the way to go if safety is their objective," Isaacs said. "What we've been promoting and feel strong about is that juice processors need to be inspected on a regular basis, not once every 10 years."

By its own estimates, the FDA expects the warning labels to reduce fresh-juice consumption by 5% to 16%, but Isaacs says the drop will be much larger. The stake is especially large for processors: the fresh-juice industry is growing parallel to the booming organic-food movement, and this year fresh-juice sales are expected to post $350 million to $400 million in sales.

As it now stands, warning labels will have to be affixed to unpasterurized apple juice -- or prominently displayed on point-of-purchase placards -- by Sept. 8. All other fresh juices must be labeled by Nov. 5, if producers haven't met the FDA's pathogen-reduction standards, which include the 5-log method.

The regulations were promulgated in reaction to an outbreak last year of illnesses and one death tied to a batch of fresh apple juice tainted with the virulent E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. The fresh juice was processed by Odwalla Inc., Half Moon Bay, Calif., which has since been pasteurizing its apple and all other non-citrus juices.

FDA officials wanted to hurry the regulations along in order to be in place for this fall's cider season, reasoning that small cider press operations could threaten children's health should they consume E. coli-tainted juice. Children are particularly susceptible to the bacteria, which can cause renal failure and death.

In comments filed with the FDA, the Food Marketing Institute here asked that regulations at the outset should only address juice and cider made from apples, since that appears to be federal officials' main concern.

Otherwise, the FMI maintains, the agency should study juice contamination and prevention more closely.