Picture of orange juice. (istockphoto.com)

Many of the orange juice samples tested by the Food and Drug Administration in recent weeks do not contain measurable amounts of a banned fungicide tied to oranges from Brazil, the federal government announced on Friday.

The FDA started the testing on Jan. 4, after Coca-Cola told the agency that it had found traces of the fungicide carbendazim when it tested samples of its orange juice brands, which include Minute Maid and Simply Orange. The company also said it had found low levels of the pesticide in its competitors’ orange juice brands and in certain orange juice concentrates that were not on store shelves.

While many countries use carbendazim on a variety of crops, its use on oranges is prohibited in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The fungicide’s registration expired in 2008, and no company applied to re-register it.

In its own testing, Coke identified the source of the tainted samples as oranges from Brazil, which uses carbendazim to combat a mold that grows on orange trees.

FDA responded by testing samples of orange juice imports at ports of entry, and holding those shipments until its tests were done. Of the 45 import samples collected, 19 did not contain measurable amounts of carbendazim and 12 of those have been released, the FDA said Friday. The samples tested so far came from five countries, but not Brazil.

As for orange juice already in the stores, a recall is not warranted because a preliminary risk assessment by the EPA found that levels of carbendazim reported by Coca-Cola “were far below any level that could pose a safety concern,” Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, said in a blog posting.

Coke reported carbendazim at levels of up to 35 parts per billion in the samples it tested. When EPA tested carbendazim to 80 parts per billion, no health issues were identified.

The FDA is currently testing 14 samples of domestic orange juice.

In this country, carbendazim is legally used in paints, adhesives, textiles and oranamental trees. The EPA allowed limited use of it on citrus until 2008, when other alternatives became available. It continues to be used on other crops in this country, including almonds, apples, peaches and strawberries, the EPA said.

The FDA stressed that three quarters of the orange juice consumed in the United States comes from domestic oranges. But the FDA also said juice makers often blend juices from different countries into their finished products. Many U.S. brands contain at least some juice from Brazil, which is the main source of imported orange juice concentrate, followed by Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize.

Mexico and Costa Rica also allow use of carbendazim on oranges, as does the European Union and Canada.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, a director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the FDA handled this particular matter appropriately given the evidence that carbendazim does not cause a public health risk at the levels reported in orange juice.

“But it does point out the real challenge FDA has in managing the safety of imported products,” DeWaal said. “This is more of a warning sign of a problem with how FDA regulates imports.”