Cinnamon Supplier Poisoned Children with Lead-Tainted Applesauce to Increase Profits: FDA

FDA report indicates that an Ecuadoran cinnamon processor intentionally added dangerous levels of lead chromate to ground cinnamon for the sake of profit.

Federal investigators have determined that a lead poisoning outbreak linked to recalled cinnamon apple sauce pouches was caused by a greedy ingredient supplier, who intentionally put children at risk by adding excessive amounts of lead to ground cinnamon to increase their profits.

In October 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a WanaBana fruit pouch recall, after sample testing identified high lead concentrations in several batches of the cinnamon-flavored apple sauce. The recall was later expanded to include additional products sold under the Weis and Schnucks brands. It was expanded once again in March to include products sold by Dollar Tree and Family Dollar, Save A Lot, La Superior SuperMercados, SF Supermarket, Patel Brothers and La Joya Morelense.

In a Post-Incident Response Report issued by the FDA on April 16, federal regulators indicate that the investigation into lead poisoning incidents is ramping down, and findings have determined that the excessive lead came from a ground cinnamon processor in Ecuador, named Carlos Aguilera.

“As a result of our investigation, the FDA’s leading hypothesis is that this contamination event was the result of economically motivated adulteration of the cinnamon used in the applesauce,” the FDA report states. “Economically motivated adulteration (EMA) occurs when someone intentionally leaves out, takes out, or substitutes a valuable ingredient or part of a food, or when a substance is added to a food to make it appear better or of greater value. In some cases, EMA can result in negative health impacts for those who consume the adulterated product.”

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Early in the investigation, FDA officials suspected the contamination may have been intentional, as sample testing only identified lead in products containing cinnamon, and revealed high lead levels in ground cinnamon supplied by Negasmart, a third-party distribution company also located in Ecuador. The agency suspects lead chromate was added by Aguilera, a now-defunct processor, to increase profits from the spice, even at the sake of children’s safety.

The FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response & Evaluation (CORE) Network received more than 200 reports of adverse events potentially linked to the recalled fruit pouches but has so far confirmed only 90 as of January 31. However, according to a March update by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 519 reports of lead poisoning linked to the pouches across 44 states. These include 136 confirmed cases, 345 probable cases and 38 suspected cases.

The FDA notes it is now transitioning from its initial response stance to post-incident response actions and activities. The agency indicates these may include additional surveillance, prevention and compliance actions.

On March 6, the FDA sent a letter to cinnamon manufacturers’ processors, distributors and facility operators, indicating it is their responsibility “to implement controls to prevent contamination from potential chemical hazards in food, including ground cinnamon products.”

Lead Poisoning Risks

Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can cause permanent brain damage, nervous system injuries, cognitive impairment, physical disabilities, or other long-term health consequences. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, as they are still developing and do not usually show exposure signs or symptoms.

While short-term exposure can cause headaches, abdominal pain, vomiting, and other minor symptoms, longer exposure may result in more severe symptoms, including lethargy, muscular weakness, confusion, or tremors.

According to pediatricians, there is no safe lead exposure level for children, and any exposure may increase the risk of developing serious or permanent injuries, or even death.

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