In October 2023, cinnamon fruit puree baby foods were recalled in the United States after four children were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Multiple lots of the products were found to have “extremely high” concentrations of lead.
As of 5th December, the number of affected children had increased to at least 64. The source of the lead appears to be the cinnamon used in the purees, with non-cinnamon variants unaffected.
Could this be a food fraud incident?
The amount of lead in one sample of fruit puree was 2 parts per million (ppm), which is more than 200 times the maximum level proposed by the FDA in their draft guidance for fruit purees intended for babies and young children.
Because cinnamon is used at low concentrations in fruit purees, for the finished product to contain 2 ppm of lead, the cinnamon itself must have contained very high levels of lead. For example, if the finished product contains less than 1% of cinnamon, the contaminated cinnamon would have to contain more than 200 ppm of lead.
That’s one hundred times more concentrated than usual: cinnamon typically contains just 2 ppm of lead (Hore, et. al (2019)).
Cinnamon can become accidentally contaminated with lead in various ways.
Cinnamon trees, from which the spice is made, can absorb lead from the soil as they grow. Cinnamon can also become contaminated with lead through contact with machinery or transport vehicles that have lead-containing alloys, solders or paints, or lead-containing environmental dust and dirt.
However, accidental contamination usually results in low levels of contamination. In this current recall, the amount of lead in the cinnamon is likely to be much higher than usual; perhaps more than 100 times more. At the time of writing, the actual levels are not known. The US FDA says “sample collection is underway”.
Many food safety commentators are openly discussing the possibility that the cinnamon was deliberately tampered with, for economic gain (food fraud) or perhaps to intentionally cause harm (food defense).
Lead-based pigments in spices have caused harm to children in the past. Lead-chromate adulterated turmeric caused children in the USA to be poisoned in 2010 – 2014. Paprika adulterated with lead oxide caused the hospitalisation of more than 50 people in Hungary in 1994.
A sample of the Georgian spice kviteli kvavili, also known as yellow flower or Georgian saffron, was discovered to contain 48,000 ppm of lead in a NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) lead-in-foods survey. In the same survey, which assessed more than 3,000 food samples over ten years, nineteen cinnamon samples had a median lead level of 2 ppm, with the highest level in cinnamon being 880 ppm.
That’s right: one sample of cinnamon in the NYC survey contained 880 ppm, more than four hundred times higher than ‘normal’, and enough to result in dangerously high levels of lead in any food to which it was added.
Why adulterate cinnamon with lead?
Lead pigments and powders are used by food fraud perpetrators to enhance the colors of spices. The most well-studied example of this is the use of lead chromate in turmeric.
🍏 Read how traders in Bangladesh were using lead chromate to color the turmeric roots they were selling (and what made them stop) 🍏
In addition, because lead is a heavy metal, it is literally heavy. Spices are traded by weight, so adding lead increases their weight and therefore the price.
Deliberately adding lead to spices is, unfortunately, a common food fraud practice. The intention is to make more money for the perpetrator.
While some food adulteration actions are intended to cause harm for malicious purposes, lead adulteration does not lend itself to intentionally harmful adulteration. Such adulteration is perpetrated to create a high impact on consumers or companies, but lead poisoning is slow-acting and can take months or years to be identified, minimising the potential for a high-impact incident.
If the cinnamon has been intentionally adulterated with lead, it was likely done for economic gain (food fraud), rather than for malicious purposes.
Takeaways for food professionals
⚠Warning! ⚠ If the cinnamon used to make the recalled products was from a larger batch, more products are likely to be affected, and more recalls can be expected.
If your company uses cinnamon, consider testing it for heavy metals including lead.
More details about the recall can be found here: Investigation into elevated lead levels in cinnamon-applesauce pouches (US FDA)
This post originally appeared in The Rotten Apple, a weekly newsletter for food professionals, by Karen Constable