While dozens of children in the United States suffer from lead poisoningFederal regulators are currently investigating whether the culprit is cinnamon that was added to some popular applesauce packets, and whether lead was added somewhere along the global supply chain, either to enhance the color reddish of the spice, 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 in dollar stores and other outlets under the brand names WanaBana, Schnucks and Weiss.

Concern over the poisoning cases, affecting up to 125 children, highlighted a broader gap in the FDA’s food oversight. There is no federal requirement to test foods manufactured domestically or imported into the United States for lead. In this case, a North Carolina Department of Health investigation identified the source of contamination after receiving reports of elevated lead levels in children’s blood tests.

The fact that children’s blood lead levels tend to be the first line of detection for lead in food amounts to “effectively using children as canaries,” said Tom Neltner, senior director of safer chemicals at the Environmental Defense Fund, 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 of the agency and an industry that needs to be fixed,” Mr. Neltner said.

Jim Jones, director of the FDA’s food division, said in an interview with Politico that the lead contamination appeared to be an “intentional act.”

On Friday, the FDA said one theory it was exploring is the possibility “that the cinnamon contamination was a possible result of economically motivated adulteration.” In simpler terms, this explanation could mean that the company producing the cinnamon used additives to make the spice more attractive and commercially profitable.

The agency stressed that its investigation was not complete and included other theories.

Food safety experts said added lead has long been a concern in spices with a reddish hue.

“If you sell spices by the pound or the ton, you’re going to get a better price for lead-containing or lead-colored spices,” said Charlotte Brody, national director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures, which advocates for phasing out spices. . toxins from baby foods. “But you will also poison the children.”

Blood lead testing of children is needed in some states and cities but they are voluntary in most areas, Mr. Neltner said. When high levels are found, lead in paint is often considered the culprit, he said, adding that investigations as careful as the one in North Carolina are exceptional.

Like most foods consumed in the United States, the different ingredients in applesauce packets are sourced and manufactured in different parts of the world before arriving on store shelves. The cinnamon applesauce packets were manufactured in Ecuador by Austrofood, but its cinnamon supply was provided by another company, Negasmart.

This week, the FDA said it was conducting an on-site inspection of Austrofood’s manufacturing plant in northern Ecuador and collecting samples of cinnamon used in the recalled products. Austrofood did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The FDA said Ecuadorian authorities told U.S. regulators that Negasmart’s cinnamon contained higher levels of lead than allowed by Ecuador and that the company was currently engaged in a process to determine who was responsible for contamination. Negasmart did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Brody said the FDA notices and company statements on the recall so far have left a major question unanswered: which company shipped the cinnamon, which is usually imported from Asia, and where is used elsewhere?

“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 extended beyond the recalled applesauce packets. . He added that as of November 30, examinations had not found any shipments containing “higher levels of lead.”

The FDA’s policies regarding lead in foods eaten by children are less stringent than government standards for the cribs they sleep in, Ms. Brody said. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead, which can damage their nervous systems and affect their growth, learning and speech development.

In 2017, the FDA has established recommendations for the amount of lead in children’s candy after California regulations discovered popular candies from Mexico that had been contaminated either with lead visible on shiny wrappers or chili powder used in some treats.

And earlier this year, the agency proposed maximum limits for lead in baby foods like fruit puree and dry cereals, after years of studies that showed many processed products contained high levels of lead. The draft guidelines, which would not be mandatory for food manufacturers, have not yet been finalized.

The agency has asked Congress for more power to address the problem, according to its legislative proposals for 2024. The requests include authority to set binding limits on contamination in foods, noting that under current law, “the FDA has limited tools to help reduce exposure to toxic elements found in food supply.”

In its request to Congress, the agency also emphasized that “the food industry is not required to test ingredients or final products” intended for consumption by infants or children, and requested authorization to require food manufacturers to test for toxic elements.

New York State imposes a lead limit in spices, which has led to numerous product recalls in recent years.

California is following New York’s lead, taking a more aggressive stance on testing for heavy metals, particularly in baby foods. Starting in January, manufacturers of foods intended for children under 2 years old will have to test a sample of each product once a month for arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. Manufacturers will also be required to share results with California health regulators, upon request.

In January 2025, baby food manufacturers will be required to publicly publish their test results.

Weis Markets, which removed the affected cinnamon applesauce packets from its shelves in late October, said in a statement that it was the manufacturer’s responsibility to test the applesauce packets for “multiple items” and to “certify that the products are healthy and pure”.

Weis said another company, Purcell International in California, which imported the applesauce packets from Ecuador, was also responsible for testing the product’s safety. Purcell did not respond to an email seeking comment.

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