The downside of global supply chains

What we can learn from the ongoing cinnamon applesauce pouch debacle. Plus, Washington is once again playing footsie with a government shutdown – everything’s going great!

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The downside of global supply chains

We’re now about two and a half months into the lead-tainted cinnamon applesauce pouch disaster. It’s been a minute since I dug into all of this – and so many of you still have questions about it, like: How on earth did this happen? Where do things stand? What have we learned, if anything? Let’s break down the latest: 

A refresher: Back in October, FDA issued a health alert warning to the public regarding elevated blood lead levels in four children in North Carolina tied to consuming cinnamon applesauce pouches imported from Ecuador. Within days, WanaBana, Schnucks and Weis branded applesauce products had been recalled nationwide – a recall including major retailers like Dollar Tree and Amazon.

Case count continues to grow: The situation has expanded considerably since then. This week, FDA said it now has 87 confirmed cases tied to this incident. CDC, for its part, is investigating a total of 321 cases (86 confirmed cases, 209 probable cases, and 26 suspected cases). As a reminder, FDA and CDC have different case counts because they have different reporting structures – so we don’t know how many of these cases overlap. Confusing? Yes.

When I first wrote about this debacle, I noted it was very bad. At that point, we only knew of about 34 kids with elevated blood lead levels. Now we’re approaching ten times that number of suspected cases – and that’s almost certainly an undercount. The count could continue to grow as more local health departments proactively look for cases. Last week, for example, St. Louis County announced it’s now hosting walk-in lead screenings.

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 behavioral and developmental problems, lowered IQ, and more.

So many kids ate these: We’re likely talking about millions of servings of cinnamon applesauce. This recall included at least 1.8 million units – and many of these pouches were sold in multipacks – sold over the course of several months. (Hat tip to Thomas Tarantelli, a retired New York state chemist, for first doing the math on the size of the recall.) 

The culprit? Yup, cinnamon: As initially suspected, FDA eventually confirmed in late December that highly-contaminated cinnamon was the source of the problem. The agency found extremely high levels of lead in the cinnamon they tested – like 2,000 times higher than proposed international safety standards – and then last week the agency added that it had also found high levels of chromium. We don’t know for sure, but these latest test results would appear to suggest the cinnamon may have been contaminated with lead chromate – a toxic coloring agent that’s been a major problem in turmeric, in particular. (One weird twist: Cinnamon isn’t usually as valued for its color, like turmeric is, but all signs still point toward economic adulteration.) 

Limited jurisdiction overseas: We still don’t – and we may never – know exactly what happened: Who contaminated the cinnamon, and was it for economic gain? Where in the supply chain did things go wrong? One big reason: FDA doesn’t have jurisdiction to climb further up the supply chain. In this case, the agency did eventually inspect the Ecuador plant that made the pouches, but the cinnamon supplier (also in Ecuador) isn’t exporting food to the U.S. Because of this, FDA says it doesn’t have the authority to take “direction action” with the supplier. This makes it harder to figure out where and how the contamination occurred. Ecuador has said it’s still investigating the incident, but I didn’t hear back from officials this week about where that investigation stands.

Takeaways: This situation has me thinking about the downsides of globalization and long supply chains. There’s no question that liberalization of trade has brought down the cost of all sorts of things, but this is a real reminder of what can go very, very wrong.

It’s actually kind of a miracle this problem was caught at all. As I previously reported, it was picked up by routine blood lead screening (funded through CDC), but only because health officials in North Carolina went the extra mile after they couldn’t find an obvious source of lead contamination in the affected childrens’ homes.

Mandating prevention: Health advocates, for their part, see this as a clear indication that FDA should explicitly require companies to actively work to prevent other contaminants – like heavy metals – beyond the historic focus on pathogens that make people sick. Tom Neltner, who recently left the Environmental Defense Fund to launch Unleaded Kids, a new nonprofit aimed at reducing kids’ lead exposure, told me he’s been urging FDA to make it clear to food makers that lead is a problem they need to be actively working to minimize under existing food safety rules.

“Most of the time, FDA’s emphasis has been on pathogens,” Neltner said, adding: “The importer of this product failed – and FDA should be making an example of them.”

The feds could also require heavy metals testing for certain products, such as baby and kids’ food. There are currently no federal testing requirements and no federal limits for these types of contaminants in most of these products – though California did just institute its own testing mandate for heavy metals in baby food, which will apply broadly since nearly every major manufacturer sells to consumers in California. Since the new requirement kicked in this month, companies now have to test every lot of baby food they make. As of next year, they’ll be required to publicly post those results.


What I’m reading

House Republican revolt scrambles plan to prevent government shutdown (Washington Post). “Congress began leaving Washington on Thursday for the long holiday weekend without a plan for how to prevent a government shutdown next week, as a revolt over spending brewed among hard-right House Republicans,” report Jacob Bogage and Marianna Sotomayor. “Funding for 20 percent of the government is set to expire on Jan. 19, and the rest expires on Feb. 2.” (Note: The 20 percent set to run out of funding Jan. 19 includes FDA and USDA.) “The Senate on Thursday took procedural steps to be able to pass a stopgap funding bill, known as a continuing resolution or CR, to keep the government open while members work on long-term spending legislation. Members left town after that and are due to return on Tuesday.”

15 G.O.P. governors shut out food aid for 8 million children (New York Times). “More than eight million children in 15 states, all led by Republican governors, will be shut out of a new federal food assistance program intended to help needy families during the summer months,” writes David W. Chen. “The deadline for states to opt into the program, which was approved by Congress with bipartisan support, was Jan. 1. And this week, the federal Agriculture Department announced that 35 states, all five U.S. territories and four tribal nations, mostly in Oklahoma, had signed up for the program, which provides a total of $2.5 billion in federal funds for an estimated 21 million children whose families already qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The 35 states included all the ones led by Democratic governors, and a dozen led by Republican governors from all parts of the country.” (For more on Summer EBT, see last week’s newsletter here.)

Food inflation slightly moderated in December (New York Times). “Food price increases eased slightly in December, providing moderate relief to consumers who have faced higher costs for groceries,” reports Madeleine Ngo. “Overall, food prices rose 0.2 percent over the month, the same rate they climbed in November. Grocery prices increased 0.1 percent, as they did in November. The cost of eating at restaurants rose 0.3 percent, a slight slowdown from 0.4 percent the month before. Food price increases also continued to ease compared to a year earlier. Overall, food prices were up 2.7 percent in the year through December, down from 2.9 percent in November. Still, that is a faster rate than prices were rising before the pandemic.”

Washington state plans to sue to block Kroger-Albertsons deal (Bloomberg). The Washington state attorney general is expected to file a lawsuit seeking to block Kroger Co.’s proposed takeover of Albertsons Cos. as soon as Thursday afternoon, according to a person familiar with the plan,” reports Leah Nylen and Anna Edgerton. “The US Federal Trade Commission and a group of other states that are also probing the deal aren’t involved in the Washington state lawsuit, the person said. Any lawsuit by the FTC would likely be filed in federal court. A combined Kroger-Albertsons would have nearly 5,000 stores across the country merging the banners of Kroger, Ralphs, and Harris Teeter with Albertsons, Safeway, Acme and Jewel-Osco, among others.”

FTC unlikely to weigh in on Kroger-Albertsons before February (Axios). Speaking of, Richard Collings reported Thursday: “The Federal Trade Commission isn’t likely to decide until February on whether to challenge Kroger’s proposed $25 billion tie-up with Albertsons, a source close to the FTC’s thinking says. Why it matters: It looks like the grocery mega-merger is on hold for at least a while longer.”

U.S. diet panel adds another researcher with alcohol industry ties (New York Times). “Shortly after dropping two Harvard scientists with financial conflicts of interest, the national organization assembling a committee to assess the evidence about drinking and health has chosen four new panelists, among them another Harvard professor who also has financial ties to the alcohol industry,” reports Roni Caryn Rabin. “The committee’s work, under the auspices of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, will be used to update the federal government’s dietary guidelines, which advise Americans on nutrition and diet, including how much they should or should not drink.”

Iowa farmers want Trump, despite talk of trade wars (Reuters). “Republican farmers in Iowa say they want Donald Trump as their U.S. president, buoyed by the historic sums of money his administration handed out to farms and despite his talk of trade wars that could tank already stifled U.S. agricultural exports,” report James Oliphant, Leah Douglas and P.j. Huffstutter. “Farmers are a politically powerful voting bloc whom Trump has worked to court in the lead-up to Monday’s caucuses in Iowa, a top farm state and site of the party’s first nominating contest. A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Trump is the favorite of 49% of Republicans for the party’s nomination to run against Democratic President Joe Biden in November.”


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