New restrictions on sales of unpasteurized fruit juice in King County moved closer to reality yesterday with action by the county Board of Health. But for state and local regulators, making natural fruit juices safer also raises economic issues.
Yesterday, the Board of Health heard from victims of last month's salmonella outbreak that was traced to unpasteurized orange juice, and from people who said their businesses would suffer if sales of packaged, unpasteurized juice are outlawed. Such a ban, advocated by County Executive Ron Sims, "would be the demise of my company," said Scott Harris, owner of Scotty's Juice Tree.
A small Seattle distributor, it sells commercially produced, fresh-squeezed citrus products to hotels and restaurants. Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer, has sued producers of unpasteurized juices in two large-scale food poisoning cases, Odwalla in 1996 and Sun Orchard in the current outbreak. He told the board that nothing would please him more than to never again receive a call from a parent of a gravely ill child. "Put me out of work. Please. Do it," he urged the panel.
The board directed its staff to research the issue and bring it a range of options in September. Options likely would include an outright ban or at least warning labels on unpasteurized juices. The board also asked for testimony from state and federal food-safety experts. Gov. Gary Locke this week directed the state Board of Health to draft rules requiring restaurants, hotels and other businesses to warn consumers if they sell products prepared with unpasteurized juice.
Mike Merritt of Seattle told the board yesterday how his 2-year-old daughter contracted salmonella last month from a fruit "smoothie" made with contaminated orange juice. He said he and his wife felt they "were not able to make an informed judgment" about the safety of the juice. They had no way of knowing the juice was unpasteurized, Merritt said, because it needn't be labeled as such and it was mixed into the smoothie at the restaurant. Merritt's wife, Karen Wolf, is a county employee who first urged Sims to call for a ban on packaged, unpasteurized juice.
The couple's daughter, who has recovered, was one of 207 confirmed cases of salmonella in 15 states and two Canadian provinces so far traced to Sun Orchard juice. "What we're dealing with here to some extent is a failure of federal regulation," said Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin, a board member. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently doesn't require packaged, unpasteurized citrus juice to be labeled as such if the producer uses an approved alternative process to eradicate pathogens.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Jim Kurtz, a vice president of Sun Orchard in Tempe, Ariz., said a ban or labeling requirements would be premature because "we're not certain yet how that strain of salmonella got into our juice. "Until we know the source, it's difficult to say we have the solution to eliminating that problem at its source," he said. "I would like to believe, however, that fresh citrus juice can be produced and marketed safely."
Flow International Corp., a Kent company, has developed an ultrahigh-pressure technology for eradicating pathogens from juice. "Pasteurization heat is not the only answer for safe juice," said Errol Raghubeer, Flow's director of food and bioscience technology. He told the board that his process exceeds the FDA's required pathogen-reduction level. Gary Meyerson, general manager of Scotty's Juice Tree, said in an interview that unpasteurized juice his company buys from a California producer also uses an alternative process, but meets federal standards. Sims' proposed ban,
Meyerson said, "would be devastating to us. We're fighting for our lives over something we feel is so unjustified."