Lead In Recalled Applesauce Pouches Might Have Been Added On Purpose

The applesauce pouches were recalled for possible lead contamination. Now we might know why.

Late last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a recall on cinnamon applesauce pouches sold at various grocery stores and Dollar Tree locations, due to possible elevated levels of lead. But what started as a seemingly commonplace food recall is starting to get complicated.

After the recalled products were thoroughly investigated, it was determined that the ground cinnamon in the applesauce products was the likely source of the lead. (The U.S. doesn't import this particular ground cinnamon directly, so there's no danger of it contaminating your spice rack.) However, now it seems that the cinnamon's lead content might have been added to the product deliberately.

Politico reports that the FDA has found evidence that the lead in the cinnamon was deliberately added.

"We're still in the midst of our investigation," said Jim Jones, the FDA's Deputy Commissioner for Human Foods, in an exclusive interview with Politico. "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."

Right now the details are still murky, such as how or why the lead was added to the cinnamon. But one thought is that the tampering was financially motivated, and that the ingredient was adulterated to sell it at an artificially higher price. The New York Times explains that adding lead to cinnamon can either make the spice more attractive by deepening its reddish hue, or make it heavier (lead weighs more than cinnamon) in order to sell what seems like a greater volume of the product for more money.

"My instinct is they didn't think this product was going to end up in a country with a robust regulatory process," Jones told Politico. "They thought it was going to end up in places that did not have the ability to detect something like this."

Jones also said that despite the food safety laws we have in place, deliberate acts of contamination are "always going to be tricky to absolutely stop, if somebody has intent to purposefully do something like this."

The applesauce was manufactured in Ecuador, and the tainted cinnamon has already been linked to Negasmart, a third-party distribution company in Ecuador that supplied its manufacturer, Austrofoods (also located in Ecuador). So far, over 60 children have tested positive for elevated lead levels, some of which had over 500 times the acceptable threshold of the substance in their bodies, The Washington Post reports.

The FDA is still working to pinpoint the culprit. "We're going to chase that data and find whoever was responsible and hold them accountable," Jones said.

The investigation is ongoing, but in the meantime, if you're concerned you may have purchased the cinnamon applesauce in question, you can read which pouches were affected, and what to do with them if you find them, here.