Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is calling for a full-scale hearing after Senate Democrats blocked a bill that would modernize an outdated regulation and protect Florida citrus growers and processors.
Without the legislation Florida’s citrus industry would disappear, Rubio said during an Aug. 4 debate of the bill in the U.S. Senate.
“I hope we can get a hearing and we can get this passed because I’m not sure if a couple of years from now, we’re going to have a citrus industry,” Rubio said.
In June, Rubio along with Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) introduced S. 4394, the Defending Domestic Orange Juice Protection Act which would direct the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to lower the required level of sugar/solids content (Brix standard) in not-from-concentrate pasteurized orange juice from 10.5 percent weight of orange juice soluble solids to 10 percent. The Brix scale is used to measure sugar content in substances including fruit juices.
Rubio explained to fellow Senate members,
“About 60 years ago, the FDA created a standard for what they consider pasteurized orange juice and for orange juice to be marked with the stamp that says “pasteurized.” No less than 10.5% of the weight of the juice has to be accounted for by soluble solids such as naturally occurring sugar.
“This is just an arbitrary number, by the way. The 10.5% of the weight has nothing to do with the nutrition, has nothing to do with the safety, has nothing to do with the quality. It’s just [that] they had to come up with a number to define the difference between orange juice and something that’s not orange juice. And that was the number they came up with.
“And so for decades, the citrus industry in Florida has been following that specification, and it hasn’t been a problem. And then Florida was impacted by this thing called citrus greening, pests that came from Asia, particularly from China. And what it’s done is it’s ravaged the trees….
“One of the impacts it has is that now the sugar content—you wouldn’t notice it if you drink it or you eat one—but the sugar content of the fruit that’s now on those trees, because of the greening, often falls under the 10.5. Again, no one would know. It’s not any less safe, it’s not any less nutritious. It just falls under that number.
“And then obviously the hurricane we had in  made those problems even worse, when [we] suffered the loss of a bunch of trees. And so now to meet this arbitrary 10.5% threshold, the juice processors in Florida have to now blend in…oranges and orange juice that have higher sugar content. And they usually have to import it from a foreign source.
“Again, there’s no health benefit to doing that. In fact, you could probably argue that less sugar is probably better. You wouldn’t taste the difference, you wouldn’t know it. [If I] put two glasses of orange juice in front of you, one with…10% and the other one with 10.5, you wouldn’t notice the difference.
“So…[the orange juice producers] have been asking the FDA to change the standard so they don’t have to import a bunch of oranges from Brazil and mix it just to be able to hit the sugar content.
“And if they can’t do it, then the only thing that changes is that the final product can’t be marketed as Florida orange juice. And that’s really the challenge that we’re facing here.”
A twin bill H.R. 8054 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by 15 bi-partisan lawmakers including Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), Kat Cammack (R-FL), Daniel Webster (R-FL), María Elvira Salazar (R-FL), Darren Soto (D-FL), Al Lawson (D-FL), Bill Posey (R-FL), John Rutherford (R-FL), Gregory Steube (R-FL), Scott Franklin (R-FL), Carlos Giménez (R-FL), Charlie Crist (D-FL), and Vern Buchanan (R-FL).
“Forcing the orange juice industry to import and mix juice from foreign oranges to meet an arbitrary FDA standard would mean the end of Florida orange juice,”Rubio said. “This common sense bill will provide relief to Florida citrus growers and processors who have faced challenges in recent years due to disease and hurricanes, and allow them to continue marketing Florida orange juice.”
Senate Democrats blocked the bill on grounds that it would override long-standing FDA standards for modifying its standards.
The hearing is pending.