The curious case of lead in applesauce pouches

How the heck did high levels of lead get into kids’ cinnamon applesauce pouches? Plus, FTC warns industry trade groups, influencers over social media ads.

Three recalled applesauce pouches pictured laying flat on a table.s

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Today, in Food Fix: 

– How the heck did lead get into kids’ cinnamon applesauce pouches?

– FTC warns industry trade groups, influencers over social media ads


The curious case of lead in applesauce pouches

At least 34 children across 22 states are now reported to have high levels of lead in their blood potentially linked to consuming cinnamon applesauce pouches made in Ecuador that were sold across the U.S., FDA said in an update late Thursday.

What to look for: The recalled pouches were sold under three different brands: WanaBana apple-cinnamon fruit puree pouches, that were sold through multiple retailers including Amazon, Dollar Tree and others; Schnucks-brand cinnamon-flavored applesauce pouches and variety packs, sold at Schnucks and Eatwell Markets; and Weis-brand cinnamon applesauce pouches, sold at Weis grocery stores.

Just so we’re clear: This is all very bad. There’s a strong scientific consensus that there is no safe amount of lead, particularly for babies and young children who are especially vulnerable to the neurotoxin. Lead exposure has been linked to various behavior and developmental problems, lowered IQ, and more. This is also a very unusual situation. I’ve covered food safety for well over a decade and in that time I think there’s only been one similar case where lead in food sparked a similar investigation. (The culprit then was ground turmeric.) 

Routine screenings FTW: The only reason we know about this current situation is because the CDC funds states and cities to conduct routine lead blood-screening for young children. The North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services first noticed four children with high lead levels, and over the course of several weeks they, along with state ag officials, ultimately linked it to the pouches. 

It takes time and resources for health officials to go into kids’ homes and investigate the cause of lead exposure. Most often, it’s lead paint or water or some other environmental exposure in the home, but increasingly state health officials are having to look to food as a potential exposure, too. In part, this is due to CDC’s lowered threshold for what’s considered a concerning level of lead in a child’s blood – a reaction to the growing body of science finding low levels harmful. 

Alarmingly high lead levels: The lead levels in these pouches were really, really high. The FDA recently proposed a lead limit for baby and toddler foods at 10 parts per billion (ppb) – a level health advocates complained was not nearly protective enough. The levels found in these pouches by North Carolina officials were between 1,900 ppb and just over 5,000 ppb. That’s between 200 and 500 times the proposed FDA standard.

All eyes on cinnamon: Food safety experts watching this case unfold immediately suspected cinnamon as the probable culprit – and FDA confirmed Thursday that the agency’s “leading hypothesis” is cinnamon as the likely source of contamination.

That said, “FDA has not yet been able to collect and test samples of the cinnamon used in the recalled products,” the agency said. “The FDA is continuing to work with Ecuadorian authorities to investigate the source of the cinnamon. At this time, FDA has no indication that this issue extends beyond these recalled products, but to further protect public health, FDA is screening incoming shipments of cinnamon from multiple countries for lead contamination.”

Was it intentional? If it is indeed cinnamon that’s to blame here, the levels in the cinnamon itself must be extremely high. The spice would only make up a tiny fraction of the volume of the pouch – and if the contents of the pouch tested at such high levels, that suggests an extremely contaminated, if not purposely adulterated, ingredient. We do not know how this happened – the company has not responded to my questions – but a lot of folks I talked to this week are openly wondering if this was intentionally or economically adulterated.

Cinnamon has a track record of lead contamination – whether from soil uptake into the plant, environmental exposure or even other things getting mixed in with ground cinnamon – but the levels here would likely be off the charts compared to what is typically found.

More recalls possible: If it is the cinnamon, it begs the pressing question: Where else did that cinnamon go? If it was used beyond what’s already been recalled, those other products would almost certainly need to be recalled, too. 

Swift FDA action: Just about everyone I asked this week about the cinnamon mystery was quick to praise FDA for acting quickly, largely because the agency has been extremely slow to act in the past when similar issues were raised. 

(Back in 2019, for example, King County, Wash. health officials alerted FDA that lead-laden pressure cookers were the likely source of elevated lead levels in some refugee children, but had trouble getting anyone in the agency to pay attention to the issue even though it was happening in multiple states. Health officials are still finding the products for sale online.)

Consumer advocates are crediting Jim Jones, FDA’s new deputy commissioner for human foods, for helping the agency make a swift decision to alert the public. Jones told stakeholders Monday that North Carolina alerted FDA to the issue on a Wednesday in late October and by that Friday FDA officials had vetted the science. The first recall was announced on Saturday. Four days is an incredibly fast timeline for any federal agency, and the quick timeline was warranted considering the seriousness of this issue and just how many children are potentially at risk. 

“We applaud the agency because now they’re listening – and they’re acting,” said Tom Neltner, senior director of safer chemicals at the Environmental Defense Fund. “They weren’t listening before.”

In an interview this week, Ed Norman, program manager for the environmental health section of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, also lauded FDA for being “incredibly responsive” to the state’s findings.

Get it off the shelves: While FDA acted quickly, not all retailers appear to be doing the same. Norman told me he’s still finding the pouches in Dollar Tree stores – and multiple other health officials are reporting the same, he said. 

Health officials on alert: The CDC issued an alert this week asking healthcare providers to be on the look out for kids with symptoms associated with lead poisoning. Raising the profile of this issue will almost certainly yield more cases. In North Carolina alone, state officials are already investigating several additional reports across six counties, Norman told me. They’re also revisiting cases from the past six months where kids had high levels yet officials couldn’t find a source in the home – could the pouches have explained some of those? We don’t know yet. It’s important to note that though the pouches are super contaminated, these levels are likely not high enough to cause noticeable symptoms. My guess is that parents who figure out their kids ate these pouches will have their kids tested, but it won’t be because they notice they’re acting strangely. 

The bigger picture: This incident is already bringing more attention to the fact that we don’t have mandatory standards for heavy metals in most foods, including foods marketed for babies and young children, who are the most vulnerable. On Thursday night, the Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a press release calling on Congress to give FDA authority to set standards and require testing for heavy metals, including lead. 


FTC warns industry trade groups, influencers over social media ads

On Monday the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to the American Beverage Association, a trade group representing the likes of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, the Canadian Sugar Institute and several social media influencers over failure to clearly disclose paid posts meant to promote aspartame as a safe ingredient and also sugar consumption as part of a healthy diet. 

The move comes after the Washington Post reported on numerous examples where influencers had not clearly disclosed they were paid to work with each group to help spread their messages on social-media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. 

In covering the FTC’s crackdown this week, the Washington Post noted that the health influencers who received warning letters collectively have over 6 million followers on TikTok and Instagram. 

“The crackdown, which represents more aggressive enforcement of the FTC’s rules, signals that the agency seeks to set a new precedent for holding both influencers and industry accountable for social media marketing campaigns that fail to make clear who is funding them,” wrote Caitlin Gilbert, Sasha Chavkin and Anahad O’Connor. “The action also could dramatically change the social media feeds of popular influencers who now often rely on vague hashtags such as #ad or #sponsored rather than clearly naming the brand or company paying them.”


What I’m reading

Farm bill, budget extension go to president’s desk (DTN). “The farm bill extension tied to short-term federal funding passed the Senate Wednesday night on an 87-11 vote and now goes to President Joe Biden to avoid the risk of another government shutdown,” writes Chris Clayton. “On the farm bill, the extension, with the backing of the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees, extends the 2018 farm bill until Sept. 30, 2024… Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said early Thursday that extension is appreciated but he called on Congress ‘to stay focused on a new, modernized farm bill that recognizes the many changes and challenges of the past five years.’” (Biden signed the bill late Thursday.)

Ag committee Republicans vote against funding bill (FERN’s Ag Insider). “Eleven of the 29 Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee voted against the government funding bill that includes a one-year extension of the 2018 farm law, House records show,” per Chuck Abbott. “The extension would give the Senate and House Agriculture committees more time to write the next farm bill. Committee members, including Reps. Mike Bost of Illinois, Tracey Mann of Kansas, and Brad Finstad of Minnesota, said they voted against the short-term funding bill as a protest against overspending. ‘We cannot afford to pass another continuing resolution, which just enables more of the same reckless government waste that got our country into this financial mess in the first place,’ said Mann.”

Insiders say Eat Just is in big financial trouble (WIRED). “Popular vegan egg and lab-grown-meat company Eat Just is in deep financial trouble,” reports Matt Reynolds. “A WIRED investigation bringing together court records, documents, and interviews from former employees suggests that the company frequently struggled with paying its suppliers on time. Now it is being sued by a former partner for roughly $100 million and faces lawsuits from other vendors.”

The trouble with America’s ultra-processed diet (Wall Street Journal). “Should your granola bar come with a warning label? Concern is rising about the amount of ultra-processed foods in American diets, and the effect eating so many of those foods has on our health,” writes Andrea Peterson. “These foods are coming under a microscope as the U.S. government prepares the latest version of its dietary guidelines, which tell Americans which types of foods to eat and how much. For the first time, the government is asking its scientific advisory committee to consider how diets consisting of varying amounts of ultra-processed foods influence body composition and obesity risk.”

FDA’s No. 2 to retire in early 2024 (Politico). “Principal Deputy FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock plans to retire in early 2024, capping a nearly four-decade career at the agency, according to two FDA staff members granted anonymity to discuss the matter,” scooped David Lim, Katherine Ellen Foley, and Lauren Gardner. “Woodcock served as the FDA’s acting commissioner when President Joe Biden first entered office, holding the position until the Senate confirmed Robert Califf to the post in February 2022.”


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