Lead-Contaminated Applesauce Highlights Flaws in Food Safety System


Contaminated applesauce might have gone undetected for longer if it hadn’t been for one North Carolina family.

Early last summer, Nicole Peterson and Thomas Duong were alarmed by their young children’s blood lead levels during a routine exam. Within weeks, levels had doubled.

Peterson said the couple worked with the local health department as they tried to determine what could be harming their children. “We weren’t sleeping or eating, like this was driving us crazy,” Ms. Peterson said. She and her husband are suing Dollar Tree, where they bought the applesauce, and WanaBana, a U.S. distributor run by Austrofood officials.

A Dollar Tree spokeswoman said the company is committed to the safety of the products it sells. Austrofood said it had relied on its supplier’s certification and that none of its other products had been recalled.

Her 3-year-old daughter, a fierce, bright little girl who loves twirled dresses and nail polish, had a blood lead level of 24 micrograms per deciliter, nearly seven times the CDC’s level of concern. Her younger brother, a quiet boy who loves loud trucks and dance music, had reached level 21.

Public health investigators searched her home and daycare, but were unable to find the source. When the parents’ blood tests came back normal, they began to suspect a food that only children ate: bags of applesauce with cinnamon.

North Carolina health officials tested them and found unusually high lead levels.

That prompted the FDA to act.

At the end of October, Austrofood recalled millions of bags of applesauce. The FDA has said it believes this action eliminated contaminated cinnamon from the U.S. food supply.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 400 babies and young children were poisoned. The average test result was six times higher than the level found in the lead pipe water crisis a decade ago in Flint, Michigan.

The exposure in Flint was more sustained and its long-term effects have proven difficult to quantify. But years later, the number of city students who qualified for special education doubled.

Earlier this month, the FDA said Ecuadorian investigators believe the cinnamon was likely contaminated by Carlos Aguilera, who ran a spice mill. The Ecuadorian health agency filed an administrative complaint against Aguilera, saying he had operated without a permit and used broken machinery that increased the risk of impurities, records show. The complaint is pending.

Ecuadorian officials took packaged cinnamon from Aguilera’s customers that tested positive for lead, according to inspection reports and interviews.

But investigators found no contaminated cinnamon at the Aguilera plant, records show. In an interview with reporters, he denied adding lead chromate.

Austrofood is not explicitly required to test its products for lead. Under FDA regulations, companies are only required to identify potential food safety hazards and develop plans to address them.

Austrofood had a plan, but lead was not among its anticipated risks, according to FDA records.

After the lead poisoning, the FDA cited Austrofood for failing to identify lead as a hazard, agency records show.

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