How did lead get into children's applesauce pouches? Officials still don't know

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The baby food aisle of the grocery store is stocked with applesauce pouches. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Health officials in North Carolina noticed that four children had elevated levels of lead in their blood during a routine screening funded by the Centers for Disease Control. After nothing pointed to the usual environmental culprits, officials determined the cause was tainted applesauce pouches often given to toddlers. Over the past three months, more than 350 cases of lead poisoning have been investigated. Helena Bottemiller Evich, founder and editor-in-chief of Food Fix, reports that in one pouch, the toxicity levels were 200 to 500 times higher than the amount of lead allowed in the few foods where heavy metals are actually monitored. 

In the case of the tainted applesauce, Bottemiller Evich says the pouches were manufactured in Ecuador. The FDA tested the cinnamon that was flavoring the applesauce, discovering levels 2,000 times what would be considered safe by international standards. Although no one yet knows where the cinnamon originated or how it was contaminated, in 2022 we spoke with Lisa Gill of Consumer Reports about the problem of heavy metals in spices. TLDR: The problem is widespread. Of the 126 products she tested for her story, 40 had worrisome levels of arsenic, lead, or cadmium.

In this particular case, with lead in applesauce pouches, three brands of cinnamon applesauce that were sold nationwide on Amazon have been recalled. The possibility that the pouches were intentionally adulterated is being investigated. Bottemiller Evich says only 1-2% of imported foods are being reviewed, placing the onus on retailers and shoppers.