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 23 January 2024, the number of affected people had increased to at least 385.
And this could be just the tip of the iceberg, because it’s thought that around 1.8 million packages were affected, accounting for around 8 months of production. That means thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of other people also consumed the tainted food.
Watching the case numbers go up, from 4 cases in October to 251 in December and now 385, has been like watching a slow-motion train crash.
How much lead was in the food?
The earliest reports from the FDA said the level of lead in the recalled foods was “extremely high”. Later, they reported finding lead at levels of 2 parts per million (ppm) in one sample of the fruit puree. That level is more than 200 times the maximum level proposed by the FDA in their draft guidance for fruit purees intended for babies and young children.
How did the lead get into the food?
Cinnamon was suspected of being the source of the lead contamination from the earliest days of the recall because products made by the same manufacturer without cinnamon were not affected. It took some time for the FDA to obtain samples of the cinnamon for testing, and it was not until mid-December that results were published.
In December, the FDA confirmed that the cinnamon ingredient in the foods was the source of the lead.
How much lead was in the cinnamon?
The FDA found lead at up to 5,110 parts per million (ppm) in the cinnamon.
That is more than two thousand times higher than typical. Cinnamon usually contains just 2 ppm of lead (Hore, et. al (2019)). The amount in the cinnamon is also more than two thousand times higher than the ‘safety’ limit of 2.5 ppm proposed for cinnamon by the Codex Alimentarius Commission.
The figures below provide a graphical representation of the amount of contamination. The image on the left shows 5,110 ppm, the amount of lead found in one sample of the contaminated cinnamon, equal to five squares of the 32 x 32 grid. The image on the right represents the maximum amount of lead allowed in cinnamon: less than one pixel on your screen.
Why was there so much lead in the cinnamon?
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 such as from the soil or through contact with paint results in low levels of contamination. The levels of lead in the samples tested by the FDA were thousands of times higher than would occur from accidental contamination.
In the first months of the investigation, many food safety commentators openly discussed the possibility that the cinnamon was deliberately adulterated with lead for economic gain. Tampering with food for economic gain is more commonly known as food fraud, or, in the USA “economically motivated adulteration”.
Lead adulteration of spices
For buyers and sellers of spices like cinnamon, one way to make more money is to add colourants to the spices to make them look better. For example, fresh high-quality turmeric has an intense yellow colour, so adding yellow colourant to turmeric can increase its appeal, meaning it can be sold for a higher price.
Unfortunately, the colourants used by unscrupulous spice traders are not always safe. Many of them are lead-based pigments, which are cheap, have intense colours and are easy to obtain in some countries.
The most well-studied example of such fraudulent adulteration is the use of lead chromate (‘chrome yellow’) to impart a bright yellow colour to turmeric.
🍏 Read how traders in Bangladesh were using lead chromate to color the turmeric roots they were selling (and what made them stop) 🍏
Lead chromate comes in a range of intense colours, ranging from pale brown to intense oranges and crimson. In addition, because lead is a heavy metal, it is literally heavy. Spices are traded by weight, so adding a lead-based pigment increases their weight and hence the price.
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 figure, 880 ppm of lead in cinnamon, from a paper published in 2019, is not as high as in the latest incident, but it is more than four hundred times higher than ‘normal’, and enough to result in dangerously high levels of lead in any food to which the spice was added.
Is this a case of food fraud?
Deliberately adding lead-based pigments such as lead chromate to spices is, unfortunately, a common food fraud practice. The intention is to make more money for the perpetrator.
Some weeks after the lead results were shared by the FDA, they revealed that the cinnamon contained high levels of chromium as well. Test results for other heavy metals, including arsenic and cadmium, were not higher than usual.
Two samples of cinnamon contained 1,201 ppm and 531 ppm of chromium, respectively. The ratio of lead to chromium is consistent with lead chromate having been added to the cinnamon.
There have been many past cases in which food fraud perpetrators have added lead chromate to spices. Because the cinnamon in this investigation likely contains lead chromate, and because lead chromate is added to spices to increase their apparent value by changing their appearance and adding weight, food fraud is the most probable explanation for the presence of lead.
Probable explanations for the extremely high levels of lead in the cinnamon:
- lead is a component of the pigment lead chromate, which is used to impart bright colours to textiles;
- lead chromate is cheap and easy to obtain in some countries;
- lead chromate is sometimes used to illegally add colour to spices, particularly turmeric;
- spices coloured with lead chromate appear fresher and of higher quality than uncoloured spices, and can be sold for a higher price;
- lead chromate comes in a range of colours, including browns, crimsons and yellows;
- the cinnamon in this incident contained very high levels of chromium as well as lead. Chromium is also a component of lead chromate pigment;
- spices adulterated with lead chromate are heavier than pure spice, so they can be sold for a higher price;
- the addition of lead chromate to the cinnamon could have allowed the perpetrator to sell it for a higher price, resulting in economic gains.
Not a food defence (malicious contamination) incident
While some food adulteration actions are intended to cause harm for malicious purposes, lead adulteration does not lend itself to intentionally harmful adulteration. Malicious acts are intended 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 was intentionally adulterated, the slow-acting nature of lead poisoning means the primary purpose of the adulteration was probably not to cause harm to consumers.
When the history of lead chromate adulteration of spices is considered, along with the presence of high levels of both chromium and lead in the cinnamon, and the fact that lead poisoning is slow-acting, it seems likely that the cinnamon used to make the recalled fruit purees was intentionally adulterated with lead chromate-containing material for economic gain. That makes it an example of food fraud.
More details about the recall and investigation can be found here: Investigation into elevated lead levels in cinnamon-applesauce pouches (US FDA)
An earlier version of this post originally appeared in The Rotten Apple, a weekly newsletter for food professionals, by Karen Constable