The cinnamon mystery continues

The latest on the feds’ investigation into lead poisonings tied to kids’ pouches. A ‘hair on fire’ warning for WIC funding. Plus, a deadly Salmonella cantaloupe outbreak expands again.

Three recalled applesauce pouches pictured laying flat on a table.

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Today, in Food Fix:

– Cinnamon in the hot seat: The latest on the investigation into lead poisonings

– A ‘hair on fire’ warning for WIC funding

– A deadly Salmonella cantaloupe outbreak expands again


The cinnamon mystery continues

At least 64 children across 28 states are now reported to have high blood-lead levels tied to recalled cinnamon applesauce pouches – a tragic situation that continues to expand as questions mount.

The latest: FDA said this week it has initiated an inspection at the facility in Ecuador that supplied pouches sold across the United States under three brands: WanaBana, Schnucks and Weis. We do not know why it took more than a month for FDA to get into this plant. I asked the agency and was told that “establishing an international inspection team takes time” as does coordinating with other countries and the State Department. (I really do wonder whether the agency has gotten full cooperation from Ecuador and/or the company, but we just don’t know at this point.)

Cinnamon in the hot seat: Cinnamon has been suspected for weeks as the likely source of contamination, but the situation remains murky at best. On Tuesday FDA said Ecuadorian authorities confirmed that the cinnamon used in the pouches “had higher levels of lead than allowed by Ecuador” and that local officials were trying to “determine the responsible party for the contamination.” 

Ecuador saying “higher than what’s allowed” kind of makes it sound like something routine, but as I’ve previously reported, if the cinnamon is the source it must be extremely contaminated. We’re talking lead levels hundreds of times higher than anything we’ve ever seen in cinnamon and thousands of times higher than typical environmental contamination. The fruit pouches themselves – which probably only contained a small amount of the spice – have tested between 200 and 500 times FDA’s proposed limit for lead in baby food. We’re talking poisonous levels. Something has gone very wrong and it very well could have been intentional.

Where in the world is the cinnamon from? Ecuadorian officials have named Negasmart as the cinnamon supplier, but we still don’t know where the spice originated. Ecuador doesn’t produce cinnamon, so it was almost certainly imported from somewhere else – likely Vietnam, Indonesia, China or Sri Lanka. It’s important to identify the cinnamon’s source to ensure it’s not being used in other products, whether sold in the U.S. or beyond. FDA has now begun its own testing of the cinnamon in question, so hopefully we’ll know more very soon.

Ballooning case counts: The official case count from FDA is 64 – all kids under 6 years of age – but the CDC has its own separate tally of cases, and we don’t know the extent to which the cases overlap thanks to differences in how they’re reported to each agency. As of about a week ago, CDC had received reports of 18 confirmed cases, 30 probable cases and 4 suspected cases from 13 states. (Sidenote: Even though the discrepancy is confusing, I’m glad CDC finally released its case count. I had asked the agency multiple times for these numbers.)

Regardless of the official tally, it’s almost certainly a significant undercount of the number of children harmed by this. As I’ve noted before, the only reason we even know about this situation is because of routine blood-lead screening for young children that’s supported by CDC. Every state handles the screenings differently, but they’re often targeted at the youngest children. (My kid in Washington, D.C., for example, was tested twice before age two as part of the city’s larger effort to clamp down on lead exposure from a variety of sources.) This screening system works pretty well, but if a kid ate these pouches at, say, age 4 or 5, in a state that did testing at younger ages it would be almost impossible to catch that.

TL;DR: If you’re a parent or caregiver trying to learn more about this situation, I recently joined a popular baby-led weaning podcast hosted by dietitian and mom Katie Ferraro to share how I’m thinking about all of this as a reporter and also mom to a toddler. (We still have applesauce pouches in my house, but they’re cinnamon-free.) Katie and I also talked about how parents might approach outbreaks and other food safety risks and balance being informed without becoming overly anxious about food. Give the episode a listen.


A ‘hair on fire’ warning for WIC funding

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) on Thursday warned that the country is facing a potentially dire situation if funds run too low for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC. 

“We have a hair on fire moment here as it relates to money that we need for WIC,” Stabenow said during a breakfast hosted by the Food Research & Action Center, or FRAC, an anti-hunger group.

USDA has been warning that WIC funds need to be bolstered by Congress to avoid waiting lists for the program in the coming months. The Biden administration has requested $1 billion in supplemental funding for the program, but the idea hasn’t gotten traction as House Republicans focus on cutting spending.

“Lean in with us and what needs to be done for the next year on WIC,” Stabenow told the room of anti-hunger and food industry leaders Thursday. “We have always fully funded WIC. There’s never been a waiting list … we have got to get bipartisan support for this.”


A deadly Salmonella cantaloupe outbreak expands again

The Salmonella outbreak tied to cantaloupe from Mexico has gone from bad to much worse. “At least eight people are now dead − three in the United States and five in Canada − and hundreds have fallen ill following a cantaloupe recall tied to a salmonella outbreak, health officials in both countries reported Thursday,” per Natalie Neysa Alund at USA Today, which just published a helpful breakdown of everything that’s been recalled to date.

“Since mid-November, 230 people in 38 U.S. states fell ill after eating the melons affected in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Of those who became sick, so far at least 96 have been hospitalized,” the report notes.

For the latest on the U.S. side of the outbreak, see CDC’s page here. The total number of illnesses connected to this outbreak have more than doubled in the past week or so.


What I’m reading

Global dairy companies join alliance to cut methane (Reuters). “Six of the world’s largest dairy companies will soon begin disclosing their methane emissions as part of a new global alliance launched at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai on Tuesday,” reports Leah Douglas. “Livestock is responsible for about 30% of global anthropogenic methane emissions, from sources like manure and cow burps, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization … The six members of the Dairy Methane Action Alliance – Danone, Bel Group, General Mills, Lactalis USA, Kraft Heinz and Nestle – will begin reporting their methane emissions by mid-2024 and will write methane action plans by the end of that year. Methane is nearly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

Two babies infected with dangerous bacteria sometimes found in powdered infant formula (Associated Press). “The dangerous bacteria that sparked powdered formula recalls and shortages last year has infected two babies this year, killing a Kentucky child and causing brain damage in a Missouri infant,” reports JoNel Aleccia. “Federal health officials confirmed Thursday that two cases of invasive infections caused by cronobacter sakazakii have been reported in 2023, both in infants who consumed powdered infant formula made by Abbott Nutrition, the company at the center of the 2022 crisis. Food and Drug Administration officials said there was no evidence that the infections were linked to manufacturing and no reason to issue new recalls. The bacteria are found naturally in the environment and also can make their way into infant formula after the packaging is opened.”

Diving—and dying—for red gold: The human cost of Honduran lobster (Civil Eats). This harrowing story by Alice Driver describes shockingly dangerous conditions endured by indigenous Honduran lobster divers and suggests programs to improve seafood sustainability and traceability have not helped the workers. “In recent years, roughly 4,000 Miskito divers have been disabled; many are paraplegic or quadriplegic. At least 400 have died … Eighty-six percent of Honduran spiny lobster still lands in the U.S. market, according to trade data from the United Nations, capturing imports between 2018 to 2022. The lobster is imported by a handful of customs brokerage firms in America.”

Does that potato count as a vegetable? The new polarizing food debate (Wall Street Journal). “Botanists count potatoes as a vegetable. But should Americans?” writes Kristina Peterson. “The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has sparked the question, setting the table for a round of spud-sparring among scientists, potato growers, potato lovers and parents. Kids, especially, want credit for eating veggies in the form of fries. White potatoes, which come in various colors, are classified as “starchy vegetables.” But the committee could uproot potatoes from the vegetable bin and toss them in with a broader category of rice, other grains and carbohydrates as the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services weigh updates to national diet guidelines for 2025.”

Krispy Kreme opens in France, the latest in a U.S. fast food invasion (New York Times). “The sight of French people flocking to American fare might have seemed surreal a generation ago in a country that loves its Michelin-starred restaurants, three-hour dinners and iconic baguette,” writes Liz Alderman. “But today, the world’s gastronomic capital happens to be one of the biggest markets in Europe for major American fast-food chains, as evolving consumer habits, influenced by a more casual younger generation and social media, reshape the dining landscape. In the spring, Popeye’s fried chicken drew huge crowds in Paris when it opened the first of 350 restaurants planned across France. Wendy’s has announced plans to set up shop in France. Burger King, KFC, Starbucks, Domino’s Pizza, Chipotle, Steak ’n Shake, Carl’s Jr. and Five Guys have long had toeholds, but they are rapidly expanding their footprints with plans for hundreds of new locations across the country.” Quelle horreur or très bon?


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