Lead-Tainted Applesauce Highlights Failings in Food Safety System

The tainted applesauce might have gone unnoticed for even longer had it not been for a family in North Carolina.

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

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

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

Their 3-year-old daughter, a fierce, bright girl who loves twirly dresses and nail polish, had a blood-lead level of 24 micrograms per deciliter, nearly seven times the C.D.C.’s level of concern. Her younger brother, an easygoing toddler who loves noisy trucks and dance music, had reached a level of 21.

Public health investigators searched their home and day care, but failed to find the source. When the parents’ blood tests came back normal, they began to suspect one food that only the children ate: foil pouches of cinnamon applesauce.

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

That prompted the F.D.A. to act.

In late October, Austrofood recalled millions of applesauce pouches. The F.D.A. has said it believes that this measure eliminated the tainted cinnamon from the U.S. food supply.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 400 infants and toddlers were poisoned. The median test result was six times the level found in the water crisis caused by lead pipes a decade ago in Flint, Mich.

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

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

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

But investigators found no contaminated cinnamon at Mr. Aguilera’s 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 F.D.A. regulations, companies must only identify likely food-safety hazards and develop plans to address them.

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

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

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