Sarah and Ricky Callahan thought nothing of it when a doctor tested their son, Rudy, for lead at a checkup, a routine blood test for all young children in Maryland.
But when his levels came back at nearly six times the minimum risk threshold for lead poisoning, they were worried. Surely, there had been a mistake. They had been so careful when it came to their only child, a redhead who loves to build things with blocks and help unload the dishwasher, pulling out all the utensils.
Suddenly, their Maryland home felt like what Ricky Callahan described as a “death trap.” Was it the furniture? The carpet? Rudy’s toys? Inspectors checked all of that and more — the water, the dishes, his crib — and found nothing suspect.
Months went by, and then a friend at Sarah Callahan’s work in whom she had confided about her son’s lead poisoning forwarded an article about a Food and Drug Administration recall of the same pureed fruit pouches Rudy had eaten for months. A lightbulb went off.
“As soon as I read the FDA announcement I knew that was the source of my son’s lead poisoning,” Callahan said in a phone interview from the family’s home in Calvert County, about an hour from Washington.
The Food and Drug Administration announced last week that it had received 52 reports of children up to 4 years old potentially exposed to lead in contaminated apple cinnamon fruit puree pouches manufactured by a company in Ecuador and sold under WanaBana, Weis and Schnucks brands. While the FDA won’t identify the affected children, the Callahans reported their concerns to the agency after matching a pouch left in their cupboard to the contaminated lot numbers published last month, according to a copy of their complaint.
After weeks without answers, it all added up.
Rudy’s lead levels had peaked in a second screening, then dropped as he switched to a whole-foods diet on the advice of experts helping the family work to eliminate potential culprits. A favorite dish is now spinach with cheese and garlic.
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The FDA said it is still investigating how the pouches were contaminated, but its “leading hypothesis” is that cinnamon — added to the applesauce Rudy loved — is the likely source. Complaints of suspected exposures have been identified in 25 states, the agency has reported, including three cases in Maryland and one in Virginia.
The other Maryland cases are from the Eastern Shore and the Baltimore area, said Chase Cook, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health. He declined to comment on the specifics of any cases.
An analysis of multiple lots of WanaBana apple cinnamon fruit puree detected extremely high concentrations of lead, officials said. Although young children with lead poisoning often show no symptoms, experts say exposure over time can cause lasting neurodevelopmental disabilities.
“There is no reason why in 2023 families are dealing with lead poisoning of their toddlers, of their children, because of a fruit puree that claims to be healthy and safe and free of preservatives,” said Nikki Guntner, a Pensacola attorney whose firm, Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz, is working with the Callahans and other parents whose children had elevated lead levels after ingesting contaminated apple puree.
WanaBana, the manufacturer, did not respond to questions Monday but in a previous statement said it has initiated a voluntary recall of the affected batches and is working closely with the FDA to investigate the source of the contamination.
In a statement, the FDA said it is working with state, federal and international partners to investigate the source of the cinnamon and the point of contamination as well as whether additional products are potentially contaminated. The agency is screening incoming shipments of cinnamon from multiple countries for lead contamination and said it has not yet detected elevated lead in imported cinnamon.
“In this instance, the FDA encourages manufacturers that import cinnamon and products that contain cinnamon to be extra vigilant to ensure their products do not contain elevated levels of lead,” agency officials said.
While FDA officials said contaminated pouches have been seen on shelves at Dollar Tree stores in multiple states, a Dollar Tree spokeswoman said stores have locked registers to prevent sales of the brand’s pouches and instructed stores to remove the product from shelves.
“We are aware of the FDA’s recent report and have worked with our store operations teams to ensure the recalled WanaBana Apple Cinnamon Fruit Puree pouches are no longer in our stores and destroyed according to FDA guidelines,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.