Exclusive: Investigation uncovers even more kids sickened by lead in fruit pouches

Nov 22, 2023

The Spotlight on America team is following disturbing developments about a widely sold fruit pouch that could be served to toddlers and young children.

The puree contains what the FDA is calling ‘extremely’ high concentrations of lead, a heavy metal toxin known to harm developing children. We’ve been covering the issue of toxic metals in food for children and babies for years, but this contamination is the most severe seen to date and impacts families all over the country.

In an exclusive investigation, we found out there may be even more cases than the FDA has reported.

Colorful pouches with playful characters, often served to babies and toddlers, is now a source of lead contamination so severe parents are being told to have their child get a blood test for lead poisoning.

The FDA is recommending that children who consumed the apple cinnamon fruit puree get their blood lead-levels tested. (Photo courtesy of the Ma Family / @MaFamilyOfficial)

WanaBana Apple Cinnamon fruit puree pouches, now the subject of a national recall, were sold nationwide at Dollar Tree stores and on Amazon.

The snack packs have been found to contain lead, a toxic metal known to damage the brain, kidneys and nervous system. The CDC says there is no safe level of lead.

But these pouches were packed with it, with one pouch containing 200 times the level of lead the FDA has proposed as the action level for food consumed by toddlers and babies.

Tom Neltner, Senior Director for Safer Chemicals at the Environmental Defense Fund, has been working on the issue of lead contamination for a quarter of a century.

He told Spotlight on America this massive investigation can be traced to doctor’s offices in North Carolina, where four kids were found to have high levels of lead in their blood. He told us the health department likely sent out a case manager who didn’t see issues with lead exposure from paint or environmental sources at the children’s home, then started asking questions about their diet, which led to the pouches.

From there, more contamination was discovered, expanding the recall to Schnucks and Weis brand pouches of the same flavor, with Neltner telling us he believes cinnamon is the culprit for contamination.

Cinnamon is the FDA’s lead hypothesis as well, but as of its latest update, the agency “has not yet been able” to collect and test samples of the cinnamon from Ecuador used in the recalled products.

In a matter of weeks, at least 34 adverse events have been reported, spanning cases in 22 states:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • North Carolina
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington

But the Spotlight team discovered what the FDA is reporting may not be the full picture.

We reached out to every state health department in America to see how they were handling this and how many cases they’ve identified. 26 states responded, and we discovered two states had suspected cases that were not identified by the FDA prior to our reporting: Virginia and Minnesota. Plus, we found an additional case in Maryland and two more in New York. The Minnesota State Health Department told us they had three suspected cases. Minnesota remains absent from the FDA’s list as of the publication of this story (its investigation is still active. You can read the latest here.)

Spotlight on America has been tracking the issue of toxic metals in baby food for years, with multiple investigations detailing heavy metals in leading brands of baby food, with no meaningful action from the FDA, the agency charged with protecting public health.

We asked Tom Neltner where accountability should come from, as disturbing cases of contamination continue to occur.

He says first and foremost, it’s on the FDA.

It’s only going to get fixed if we can get real standards issued in final guidance, and then they actually take them seriously and enforce them,” Neltner said.

That has already taken years.

Spotlight on America first reported in 2021 that the FDA ignored warnings from top scientists about high levels of contaminants in popular baby foods. Those revelations were part of a Congressional investigation, and since, the agency’s response to toxins in baby food has been the ‘Closer to Zero’ program, which is supposed to set limits for toxic heavy metals.

It still hasn’t finalized limits for lead in baby food, and doesn’t require final products to be tested. Experts say final product testing is key because it is the only way to know the total amount of lead in the product that will be consumed. While some ingredients may be individually tested, not all ingredients generally are. Meaning that a contaminated source could be included in a product without any awareness of its safety.

We’re not close to zero,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill. ” We’re not even moving in that direction.”

Krishnamoorthi is planning to re-introduce the “Baby Food Safety Act,” which would set limits for dangerous heavy metals and hold manufacturers responsible for eliminating harmful toxins in infant and toddler food.

“When parents hear about it now they are like, ‘Why didn’t this happen years ago?'” he said. “And there’s no good answer. And so that’s something that we have to change.”

We asked the FDA why, seven years after the first alarms were sounded, they have yet to come up with an enforceable standard for lead, and why they don’t require the testing of final products that could keep ingredients like cinnamon from falling through the cracks.

They declined to answer some of our questions, acknowledging there is more work to do on this issue, and telling us the soonest they could set action levels for lead in baby food is 2025. The agency added that even then, the guidance would not be binding, meaning industries won’t be required by law to adhere to them.

That said, the FDA has made several legislative proposals intended to help reduce exposure to contaminants in foods for infants and young children. One of these is titled, “Product Testing Requirements for Foods Marketed for Consumption by Infants and Young Children.” It would require industry to conduct toxic element testing of final products marketed for consumption by infants and young children and maintain such records of these testing results for FDA inspection; and would provide the FDA with new authority to remotely access records of these test results and to review these test results whenever necessary. Congress hasn’t acted on the proposal.

You can read our full exchange with the FDA at the bottom of this article.

Tom Neltner says the real change to protect children will happen when consumers finally decide they’ve had enough.

Read the full article at TND