The ministry set out in 1991 to trap its victims and substantiate the widely held suspicion that watered-down juice was being sold as undiluted. There were early morning swoops on orange-juice producers that provide own-label drink for the big supermarket chains such as Tesco. Samples were sent to laboratories in France and tested with enzyme kits from Berlin.
But despite the ministry spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money, the results have been abysmal. Action against the supermarkets has been dropped and magistrates have thrown out charges against Gerber Manufacturing, the first of the packagers to appear in court, because, they said, the ministry had broken its own rules. Other prosecutions against the packagers were suspended.
The ministry is due in the High Court from Friday for a final attempt to have the charges against Gerber and the other packagers of selling imported adulterated juice reinstated. But civil servants said privately yesterday that tomorrow the ministry may even decide not to contest the case and to abandon its three-year battle to enforce consumer law.
No one disputes that a proportion - possibly a large proportion - of the 950 million litres of orange juice sold in Britain in 1990 was adulterated. Finding the fake 'pure' juice has always been the problem. The ministry believed that supermarkets or their suppliers were not diligent in ensuring that the juice they imported had not been watered down.
By the late 1980s, concentrated juice was reaching supermarkets from all over the world via Rotterdam, Antwerpand Hamburg. European blenders would mix batches from different countries and shippers would send it to Britain. Anywhere along the chain it could be adulterated with water, sugar and orange pulp. Israel once had a bad reputation for adulteration, industry insiders said, but most tampering was being done in blending factories on the Continent.
Geoff Martin, a spokesman for the Fruit Juice Association, said fortunes could be made by fraudsters. 'The price of orange juice in 1990 was dollars 2,500 (about pounds 1,500) a ton. It had trebled in three years. There were not just a few crooks in small factories. Adulteration was a highly sophisticated business - because there was a lot of money in it. Chemists were making a nice living out of selling their skills to adulterators.'
British fruit-juice packers accepted that the tests they carried out to detect fraud were probably inadequate. They set up a joint committee with the ministry and agreed to fund experiments to see if better checks could be developed.
But early in 1991 the ministry withdrew its co-operation and, on 7 February that year, early-morning raids were carried out by its scientists and trading standards officers on four orange-juice factories.
On the same day, John Gummer, then Minister of Agriculture, issued a press statement: only five of 21 supermarket own-label and brand- name orange juices were pure. Nearly half the samples contained quantities of pulpwash, obtained by soaking squeezed oranges in water and squeezing them a second time. Others, labelled 'unsweetened', contained substantial quantities of beet sugar or corn syrup. 'Consumers have a right to know precisely what it is they are buying, and they must not be misled by the labelling,' Mr Gummer said.
The high-profile announcement did nothing but good for the ministry's reputation. It had been widely seen as being on the side of farmers and food manufacturers rather than the public. Criticism reached its height in 1990 when Mr Gummer was shown on television attempting to quell fears about mad-cow disease by feeding his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a beefburger.
But the stand for consumer rights quickly began to go wrong. A wrangle about the validityof the ministry tests has developed, revealing that the truth about orange juice is rarely pure and never simple. On the same day as the raids, the ministry unveiled, without warning, five new tests for testing orange juice. The suspicion that it was trying to trap manufacturers arose as the tests had not been validated by the scientific community and were not available to most British firms to check for themselves if they were being sold adulterated juice.
One was a search for D malic acid recently developed by Boehringer, a scientific firm in Berlin. When orange juice isdiluted its natural acidity declines. Adulterators have to make good the deficiency by adding a solution of D and L malic acids. D malic is an artificial acid which does not occur naturally in orange juice and, if it appears in a sample, it is thought to be a clear evidence of tampering.
A ministry memo, read in court at an earlier hearing, said that action had to be taken 'before the industry swamped Boehringer with orders' for the the acid-testing kits - before, in other words, companies could use the new technique to try to spot diluted consignments of orange concentrate.
Other tests were equally hard for the industry to use. A test for oligosaccharides - beet sugars added to disguise dilution - could only be carried out in Saskatchewan, Canada.
The confusion about how to test - caused, experts said, because variations in soil, climate and horticulture mean there is no such thing as standard orange juice - led to a year's delay in issuing summonses against supermarket chains and manufacturers.
In its enthusiasm to prosecute, however, the ministry forgot that, under the Food Safety Act, it was obliged to send all seized samples to be tested by county council public analysts. The analysts, who see themselves as local guarantors of food safety, independent of Whitehall, were furious, and a stipendary magistrate threw the case out.
Mr Martin at the Fruit Juice Association is now confident that adulterated juice has all but disappeared from Britain. British manufacturers were now cutting out the European middlemen and buying direct from farmers, he said, and testing procedures had improved.
But he cannot be sure. Civil servants and the industry, both responsible for developing tests on imported concentrate and protectingagainst fraud, have not been on speaking terms since the legal action began.
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