Dads caucus presses FDA on applesauce debacle

A group of Democrat dads on Capitol Hill are demanding answers from FDA about how to keep contaminated kids' food from making it to market.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) and other lawmakers announce the Congressional Dads Caucus.s

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Dads caucus presses FDA on applesauce debacle

The dads caucus is not happy about lead-tainted cinnamon applesauce pouches sickening hundreds of American children. It’s now demanding answers from FDA on how to ensure something like this never happens again.

Wait, the dads what now? The Congressional Dads Caucus – a group of largely, but not exclusively, dads – was launched in January 2023 after photos went viral of Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) wearing his baby on the House floor during a marathon of votes for the speaker. The overall goal of the group (currently all Democrats) is to press for family-friendly things like paid leave and more-affordable childcare. 

This week, however, the dads caucus zeroed in on food safety. The group sent a letter to FDA asking some pointed questions about the recent applesauce pouch debacle, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention led to reports of more than 500 children across 44 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico with lead poisoning. (Food Fix readers may recall, I’ve been covering this situation since last fall: See here, here and here to brush up. The source was ultimately pinned on WanaBana, a company in Ecuador that makes fruit pouches that are imported into the U.S.)

“Alarmingly, this issue was not discovered by the FDA or any other federal oversight agency,” the lawmakers write in a letter to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. “The lapse was instead caught after kids started exhibiting symptoms of lead poisoning, and concerned parents and local health officials began looking into possible sources of their illnesses—only to find the culprit in their own pantries.”

The lawmakers add: “The FDA subsequently issued a recall to take these products off the shelves—however, for affected children and families, that change came much too late.” 

Members of the dads caucus want to know: “What steps are being taken to address food contamination by heavy metals, and what guarantees do you have for the public that such incidents won’t happen again?” They also express support for additional funding for the agency, but want to know how much money is needed for FDA to “achieve its food safety mandates.”

Preventable tragedy: Just to be clear, this whole applesauce situation was really, really bad. Lead exposure can lead to all sorts of developmental and behavioral problems, including lowered IQ. And this likely affected more children than were reported – millions of pouches of applesauce were recalled and many families were probably unaware of the issue and therefore didn’t get their kids tested. 

The thing about food safety disasters is that they are almost always preventable. Federal officials believe this was likely a case of economic adulteration, meaning the product was contaminated on purpose, ostensibly by the cinnamon supplier, to make more money. FDA tests found signs that lead chromate – an illegal color additive – was added to the cinnamon used in the applesauce pouches. The levels of lead found in the cinnamon were off-the-charts high.

Shocking, but not surprising: The dads caucus letter cites a recent New York Times deep dive on the pouch debacle, which found that our current food safety system is simply not set up to catch something like this. This is true, but it’s also well known in the food world. It would be hard to find a food safety expert that was all that surprised that this or something like it could escape federal oversight.

One of the key findings of the NYT report, for example, is that FDA is not meeting its mandate to inspect foreign food facilities – a shortcoming that’s been known and well-documented for the better part of a decade. There are more than a hundred thousand food facilities abroad that make food destined for the U.S. and the FDA only inspects a tiny fraction of them each year (less than 1 percent in 2022), in large part due to resource constraints. In some ways, it’s a bit surprising that FDA had actually inspected the plant in Ecuador that made the pouches, though it was five years before this tragedy.

Overall, the NYT piece correctly identifies the many reasons something like this “sailed through a series of checkpoints in a food-safety system meant to protect American consumers.” One of the biggies: Food companies are not required to test their ingredients or finished products for heavy metals like lead, even if the products will be marketed to young children. 

Heavy metals under fire: There are no federal requirements to test foods for heavy metals – and FDA has not set limits for these types of contaminants in most foods anyway – but growing concern over heavy metals in baby foods and foods marketed to young children has put pressure on the agency to do more. After intense public backlash from a congressional report back in 2021, FDA launched a “Closer to Zero” initiative to reduce these contaminants across baby and toddler foods, in particular. The effort has been very slow-going since then.

What about testing authority? While the agency slowly inches toward setting some limits for these contaminants, FDA has in recent years requested that Congress give it the authority to mandate finished product testing for products marketed to infants and young children. So far, though, this policy has not gotten traction. From what I can tell, it seems to be mostly due to inertia – I am not aware of any group lobbying against this idea. (If you work on the Hill and have met with opposition, shoot me a note at But there also doesn’t seem to be any real concerted push for it, either. 

I asked Jim Jones, FDA’s deputy commissioner for human foods, about this testing issue earlier in the week at the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting in Washington. Jones acknowledged that the request had not picked up much steam on Capitol Hill, though there has been a bit more interest since the applesauce disaster.

“We are talking to members of Congress,” Jones said. “I think fundamentally the question of why Congress has not acted on it is one for Congress. We’re continuing to beat the drum on it,” adding, “it’s something we’re very interested in.”

(An FDA spokesperson later said that the agency will “respond directly to the Congressional Dads Caucus regarding the letter,” and confirmed that FDA is again seeking testing authority from Congress: “We look forward to working with Congress regarding this provision.”)

The view from California: While Congress waffles on testing authority, California has gone ahead and mandated testing for baby food makers selling products in the state. As of January, baby food companies are now required to test finished products for lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Starting in 2025, companies will have to post their test results online, which will certainly apply further pressure across the industry. 

Why it matters: If a company like WanaBana had been required to do finished product testing, the extremely high levels of lead would almost certainly have been caught before these pouches sickened hundreds of children.


What I’m reading

Investigators link Salmonella outbreak to fresh organic basil from Trader Joe’s (Food Safety News). “Fresh organic basil sold at Trader Joe’s stores is behind a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium infections,” reports Coral Beach. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating the outbreak with the Food and Drug Administration. As of this afternoon, a dozen people across seven states have been confirmed with the outbreak strain of Salmonella. The implicated fresh basil is sold in 2.5-ounce clamshell packaging under the Infinite Herbs brand.”

For the first time, U.S. may force polluters to clean up these ‘forever chemicals’ (Washington Post). “The Biden administration on Friday moved to force polluters to clean up two of the most pervasive forms of ‘forever chemicals,’ designating them as hazardous substances under the nation’s Superfund law,” report Maxine Joselow and Brady Dennis. “The long-awaited rule from the Environmental Protection Agency could mean billions of dollars of liabilities for major chemical manufacturers and users of certain types of compounds known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.”

Illinois Senate advances bill to ban food additives linked to health problems (Capitol News Illinois). “The Illinois Senate passed a bill Thursday that would ban four food additives that are found in common products including candy, soda and baked goods,” reports Cole Longcor. “Senate Bill 2637, known as the Illinois Food Safety Act, passed on a 37-15 bipartisan vote and will head to the House for consideration. The banned chemicals would include brominated vegetable oil, red dye No. 3, propylparaben and potassium bromate. Those additives are used in a wide variety of food products. Brominated vegetable oil is a stabilizer used to keep citrus flavoring in sodas from separating from the solution and floating to the top. Propylparaben and potassium bromate are used in baked goods as a preservative. Red dye 3 is a common food dye used in candy and other products.”

Why the food industry should welcome front-of-pack nutrition labeling (Agri-Pulse). “Given the evidence, it is puzzling that some members of the food industry appear to oppose front-of-pack nutrition labeling,” writes Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, in an opinion piece. “A 2023 national survey finds that 75% of U.S. consumers support mandatory front-of-pack labeling, including strong majorities across political affiliation, age range, education and income level, gender, race/ethnicity, and households with and without children. Food and beverage companies eager to preserve market share shouldn’t have trepidation. Evidence shows customers are seeking healthier products and will reward companies offering products that meet their needs.”

SNAP program purpose and work requirement provisions of the 2023 Fiscal Responsibility Act (USDA). “This proposed rule would amend the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) regulations to incorporate three provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 by adding to the program purpose language assisting low-income adults in obtaining employment and increasing their earnings; updating and defining the exceptions from the able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) time limit; and adjusting the number of discretionary exemptions available to state agencies each year. This proposed rule would also amend the regulations to clarify procedures for how and when state agencies must screen for exceptions to the time limit and clarify the verification requirements.” (As a refresher, this is the result of a big ol’ fight we had in Congress back in 2023 over raising the debt ceiling.)


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