FDA Head Urges Lawmakers to Pass Legislation Mandating Lead Testing by Food Manufacturers


Food manufacturers are not currently required to test final products for contaminants.

The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is urging lawmakers to pass legislation mandating food manufacturers test for lead in their food products from overseas.

Speaking to the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, Dr. Robert Califf said the FDA needs lawmakers to enact legislation granting the agency authority to make lead testing compulsory among such manufacturers, as it is unable to do so alone.

Under current laws, manufacturers are not required to test final products for contaminants before entering the U.S. market.

“I think the best way to think about the FDA in general is that we’re referees, you all in Congress actually write the rule book; much like in any sport it’s the leadership that writes the rule book and we enact what’s in the rule book,” Dr. Califf said. “In the case of food establishments, like most sports, the first line of defense is the players in the game which is the industry that produces the products,” he continued.

“By and large they do a great job but sometimes they don’t and as referees, we have to be really wise about where we step in because we don’t have an unlimited budget,” he added.

The FDA head noted the agency supervises around 275,000 registered manufacturing facilities both in the United States and overseas but budget constraints mean the agency often has to rely on the manufacturers to conduct testing.

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“What we can do, for example, in food for children is to have the manufacturers be required to do the testing,” which would involve testing every single batch, he told lawmakers.

Applesauce Products Recalled Over Lead

Dr. Califf’s comments come after the FDA said in March that it had identified six cinnamon products in the U.S. containing lead.

At the time time, the agency said the lead levels ranged from 2.03 to 3.4 parts per million (ppm), which is relatively low, although officials noted prolonged use could still be unsafe.

Last fall, the agency also recalled thousands of cinnamon applesauce products that it said were contaminated with lead, this time ranging from 2,000 to nearly 5,000 ppm.

That recall came shortly after U.S. food inspectors found “extremely high“ levels of lead in cinnamon at a plant in Ecuador that made applesauce pouches. The recalled pouches, from Florida-based company WanaBana, were linked to dozens of illnesses in U.S. children.

“In the case of cinnamon applesauce, if there had been mandatory testing when it got imported into the U.S. from Ecuador, the stores that were selling it probably would have picked it up at that point,” Dr. Califf told lawmakers on Thursday.

“It’s the way the drug system works,” he added. “The manufacturers of drugs have to test every batch” for potential contamination.

Lead Poisoning Signs, Symptoms

Lead is toxic to humans, and there is no safe level of exposure.

Consumption can have potentially devastating effects on childhood development, behavior, hearing and speech, and academic achievement, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Children from low-income households and those who live in housing built before 1978—before lead in paint was banned by the federal government—are at the greatest risk of lead exposure, the CDC warns.

An estimated 31 million pre-1978 homes still have lead-based paint in the United States and 3.8 million of those homes have a child younger than the age of six living there, according to the Environmental Protection Agency,

Symptoms of lead poisoning are often difficult to detect, particularly in children, and may not appear until dangerously high levels accumulate.

In children, the signs and symptoms of lead poisoning may include tiredness, fatigue, vomiting, irritability, loss of appetite, hearing loss, constipation, and seizures.

Symptoms of lead exposure in adults include headaches, abdominal pain, vomiting, anemia, muscle aches and pain, irritability, fatigue, high blood pressure, and reproductive issues, the agency said.


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