Applesauce packets may have been purposefully contaminated with lead

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published December 22, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • In November, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert about lead-contaminated applesauce pouches stemming back to a manufacturing facility in Ecuador. 

  • As of December 19, the FDA has received 69 complaints and reports of adverse events after consuming the applesauce.

  • Authorities believe the cinnamon within the applesauce was contaminated—and that it may have been purposeful.

In November, the FDA reported that several children in North Carolina experienced “potential acute lead toxicity” after testing positive for elevated lead levels.[] 

As of December 19, the FDA says it received 69 complaints and reports of adverse events—all of which happened to children under the age of six—potentially due to consumption of the product. Additionally, as of December 15, the FDA counted 122 probable cases and 16 suspected cases. The products impact domestic and international markets, as they’ve also been sold in Cuba and the United Arab Emirates.[]

The children consumed the lead-contaminated applesauce from pouches, including:

  • WanaBana’s apple cinnamon fruit puree pouches 

  • Schnucks cinnamon-flavored applesauce pouches and variety packs

  • Weis cinnamon applesauce pouches 

In order to be considered contaminated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says a person’s blood lead level must measure 3.5 µg/dL or higher within three months after consuming one of the recalled products (as of November 2022).[] 

Politico reports that the authorities believe the cinnamon within the applesauce is the source of the contamination—stemming from a manufacturing facility in Ecuador.[] 

Was the contamination intentional?

The report says that the pouches may have been purposefully contaminated and that the FDA is investigating whether or not this is true. []

The FDA’s deputy commissioner for Human Foods, Jim Jones, told Politico, “We're still in the midst of our investigation. But so far all of the signals we're getting lead to an intentional act on the part of someone in the supply chain and we're trying to sort of figure that out.”[] 

Jones explained to Politico that there are several different theories around why someone would purposefully contaminate the foods, including economic motivations, “meaning ingredients were modified so that companies can manufacture a cheap item and sell it for a higher price.” He also says that thwarting intentional contamination is challenging, especially when somebody “has intent to purposefully do something like this.”

Politico reports that the cinnamon may have come from Quito-based Negasmart, the supplier to the manufacturer Austrofoods. Ecuadorian authorities say that the cinnamon “exceeded the country’s allowed levels of lead” and is now subject to an “Ecuadorian administrative sanctions process.”[]

Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, REHS, assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, says that patients should know that lead poisoning isn’t always obvious. 

Rudolph Bedford, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, tells MDLinx that lead poisoning symptoms are a bit vague, but they can include irritability, nausea, vomiting, headache, abdominal pain, muscle weakness, and anemia.

“Most of the time, lead poisoning takes place slowly over repeated exposures,” Dr. Labus says. “Even low levels of exposure can hurt a child's cognitive development, resulting in learning and behavioral problems as well as lowered IQ. Large exposures can cause acute symptoms including gastrointestinal problems, kidney failure, and neurologic damage.”

Dr. Labus says that lead contamination can also result from “environmental contamination due to lead mining or battery recycling, or it could be from lead-containing products being added to the cinnamon sold to the plant to fraudulently increase the weight of the product.”

Patients should be encouraged to check any applesauce they have at home. “It's very important that consumers immediately destroy any of the recalled products and not consume it,” Dr. Labus adds.

What can patients do to stay safe?

Barbara Kovalenko-Smith, RDN, and nutrition consultant explains that there isn’t a reliable at-home method to determine lead content in any given food.

“The intentional addition of lead to children's applesauce is a grave concern,” Kovalenko-Smith says. “My primary recommendation is for parents to stay vigilant and informed about the products they offer their children. In light of the [applesauce contamination], it's crucial to carefully check labels, opt for reputable brands, and consider alternatives like homemade or organic applesauce.”

Sarah Herrington, MS, CNC, CPT, a nutritionist for Brio-Medical in Scottsdale, AZ, says that patients should buy fresh, whole foods to make food for themselves. More so, Herrington says consumers should always thoroughly wash fruit and produce very well before consumption and purchase frozen or vacuum-sealed meat products. More so, she says, “Avoid purchasing from bulk bins in grocery stores and watch out for any signs of rancid food, such as murky smells, slimy textures, and discolorations.”

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