With dozens of children across the United States suffering from lead poisoningFederal regulators are now investigating whether the culprit is cinnamon that was added to some popular bags of applesauce, and whether lead was added somewhere in the global supply chain, either to enhance the spice’s reddish color or to add weight.
In November, the Food and Drug Administration announced a nationwide recall of three million bags of cinnamon applesauce made in Ecuador and sold at dollar stores and other outlets under the brands WanaBana, Schnucks and Weis.
Concern over the poisoning cases, affecting up to 125 children, has highlighted a broader gap in the FDA’s oversight of food. There is no federal requirement to test for lead in foods manufactured domestically or imported into the United States. In this case, a North Carolina Department of Health Investigation identified the source of contamination after receiving reports of high levels of lead readings in children’s blood tests.
That children’s blood lead levels tend to be the first line of detection for lead in food is “effectively using children as canaries,” said Tom Neltner, senior director of safer chemicals at the Defense Fund. Environmental, an advocacy group. He said the FDA has not set enforceable limits for lead in foods, much less spices.
“What this shows is a breakdown in the agency and an industry that needs to be fixed,” Neltner said.
Jim Jones, director of the FDA’s food division, said in an interview with politician that lead contamination appeared to be an “intentional act.”
On Friday, the FDA said that one theory it is exploring is the possibility that “cinnamon contamination occurred as a possible result of adulteration for economic reasons.” In simpler terms, that explanation could mean that the company that produces cinnamon used additives to make the spice more attractive and commercially profitable.
The agency emphasized that its investigation was not finished and included other theories.
Food safety experts said the addition of lead has long been a concern in spices with a reddish hue.
“If you sell spices by the pound or ton, you’ll get a better price for lead-weighted or lead-colored spices,” said Charlotte Brody, national director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures, which advocates for removing toxins from baby food. “But you’re also going to poison the children.”
Children’s Blood Lead Testing Required in some states and cities but they are voluntary in most areas, Neltner said. When elevated levels are found, lead in paint is often assumed to be the culprit, she said, adding that investigations as careful as the one in North Carolina are exceptional.
Like most foods consumed in the United States, the various ingredients in applesauce pouches are sourced and manufactured in different parts of the world before hitting store shelves. The cinnamon applesauce pouches were manufactured in Ecuador by Austrofood, but their cinnamon supply was provided by another company, Negasmart.
This week, the FDA said it was conducting an on-site inspection of Austrofood’s manufacturing facility in northern Ecuador and was collecting samples of the cinnamon used in the recalled products. Austrofood did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The FDA said Ecuadorian authorities had told U.S. regulators that Negasmart’s cinnamon had lead levels higher than those permitted by Ecuador and that the company is currently engaged in a process to determine who was responsible for the contamination. Negasmart did not respond to a request for comment.
Brody said FDA notices and company statements about the recall have so far left one important question unanswered: Which company shipped the cinnamon, which is typically imported from Asia, and where else is it used?
“Are we receiving contaminated cinnamon from other companies?” she asked. “We need to know.”
The FDA said last month that it was examining cinnamon imports from “multiple countries for lead contamination” and had no indication that the contamination spread beyond the recalled applesauce bags. He added that as of Nov. 30, checks had not revealed any shipments with “higher levels of lead.”
The FDA’s policies on lead in foods consumed by children are less stringent than the government’s standards for the cribs in which they sleep, Brody said. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead, which can damage their nervous system and affect growth, learning and speech development.
In 2017, the FDA establishes recommendations over the amount of lead in children’s candy after regulators in California discovered popular candies from Mexico that had been contaminated by lead leaching from shiny wrappers or chili powder used in some of the candy.
And earlier this year, the agency proposed maximum limits for lead in baby foods like pureed fruit and dry cereals, after years of studies showed that many processed products contained high levels of lead. The draft guidance, which would not be mandatory for food manufacturers to follow, has not yet been finalized.
The agency has asked Congress for more powers to address the problem, according to its legislative proposals by 2024. The requests include authority to set binding limits on contamination in food, noting that under current law, “the FDA has limited tools to help reduce exposure to toxic elements in the food supply.”
In its request to Congress, the agency also noted that the food industry “is not required to test ingredients or end products” intended for consumption by infants or children, and requested authority to require food manufacturers to test for toxic elements. .
New York State imposes a lead limit in spices, which has led to a series of product recalls in recent years.
California is following New York’s lead and taking a more aggressive stance on testing for heavy metals, especially in baby foods. Starting in January, manufacturers of foods intended for children under 2 years old will be required to test a sample of each product once a month for arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. Manufacturers will also be required to share the results with California health regulators, if requested.
In January 2025, baby food manufacturers will have to publicly publish their test results.
Weis Markets, which removed the affected cinnamon applesauce bags from its shelves in late October, said in a statement that it was the manufacturer’s responsibility to test the applesauce bags for “multiple items” and “certify that the products They are healthy and unadulterated.”
Weis said another company, Purcell International in California, which imported the applesauce bags from Ecuador, was also responsible for testing the product’s safety. Purcell did not respond to an email seeking comment.