Attorney General James Calls on FDA to Protect Children from Lead and Other Toxic Metals in Baby Food

At Least 49 Recent Lead Poisoning Cases in New York Connected to Recalled Cinnamon Applesauce Pouches Highlight Urgent Need for Stronger Protections

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James led a coalition of 20 attorneys general calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take urgent action to protect babies and young children nationwide from lead and other toxic metals in baby food. In a letter, Attorney General James and the coalition urged FDA to act on the attorneys general’s October 2021 petition and subsequent June 2022 petition and letter, which asked FDA to issue specific guidance to the baby food industry to require testing of all finished food products for lead and other toxic metals. The coalition emphasizes the critical need for FDA to act, citing recent findings of hundreds of childhood lead poisoning cases — including at least 49 confirmed or probable cases in New York — linked to recalled cinnamon applesauce pouches that were sold in stores throughout the country without first being tested for toxic metals. 

“Parents and guardians should not have to worry that food products designed to be safe and healthy for children might contain harmful levels of lead or other toxic metals,” said Attorney General James. “Nothing is more important than ensuring the health and safety of our youngest and most vulnerable. I am calling on FDA to immediately take action to strengthen protections for children’s food, and I encourage families to check their pantries for the cinnamon applesauce pouches that were recently recalled.”

Despite the agency concluding years ago that babies’ and young children’s smaller bodies and metabolisms make them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of toxic metals, FDA has established only one action level, or amount of toxic metal in a product at or above which FDA will remove the product from the market, for one type of toxic metal (inorganic arsenic) in one type of baby food product (infant rice cereal) to date. Under current FDA policy, baby food manufacturers are left to decide whether or not to even test their products for toxic metals and other contaminants.

This delay in FDA action is both a public health concern and a matter of environmental justice, as children from low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by lead through exposure to lead-based paint, lead in drinking water pipes, and other sources. Lead in their food only exacerbates the existing inordinate and inequitable hazards these children face.  

In April 2021, FDA announced the “Closer to Zero” plan, under which the agency committed to proposing action levels for lead in various baby foods by April 2022, inorganic arsenic in various baby foods by April 2024, and cadmium and mercury sometime after April 2024. FDA has since removed those deadlines from its Closer to Zero website. In October 2021, Attorney General James led a coalition of 23 attorneys general in filing a petition with FDA urging the agency to issue clear industry guidance on testing for lead and other toxic metals in finished baby and toddler food products. After FDA denied the 2021 petition, Attorney General James and the coalition sought reconsideration of the decision in June 2022. The letter renews the call for FDA to take urgent action to protect families from lead and other toxic metals in baby food products.

In the letter, Attorney General James and the coalition highlight recent widespread childhood lead poisonings related to high levels of lead detected in WanaBana, Schnucks, and Weis brand cinnamon applesauce pouches that were not tested for toxic metals and have since been recalled. The now-recalled WanaBana pouches were sold in Dollar Tree stores throughout the country. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has identified nearly 400 confirmed or probable childhood lead poisoning cases in connection to consumption of these cinnamon applesauce pouches, including at least 49 children in New York.

Lead in Baby Food

Consumers who have purchased these recalled products and may still have them in their homes should not feed them to children or anyone else. Instead, these products should be safely discarded by carefully opening each pouch and emptying the contents into the garbage to prevent others from possibly salvaging and consuming the recalled products. For more information on these recalled products, consult FDA.

Attorney General James is a national leader on children’s food safety. In addition to her continued leadership in advocating for swift federal action, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has investigated several manufacturers of baby food regarding levels of inorganic arsenic found in infant rice cereal products, and the advertising of these products. In February 2022, Attorney General James demanded that baby food brand HolleUSA stop false or misleading advertising of its products as “lead free” after laboratory testing revealed that several of its baby foods available in New York contained detectable levels of lead, cadmium, and arsenic. In response, HolleUSA promptly removed the misleading logos and statements from their websites and virtual storefronts.

Joining Attorney General James in sending this letter to FDA are the Attorneys General of Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.

“Our babies deserve better,” said Scott Faber, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “What’s clear now is that the honor system that trusts food companies to verify the safety of our baby food is not working. What’s needed is mandatory testing and sampling and electronic reporting, not a shadowy system of third-party certifications and the false hope that an FDA inspector might someday show up. We’ve gambled with our babies’ brains, and our babies are paying the price. We applaud Attorney General James and her coalition for demanding that FDA take immediate action to protect our babies.”

“Exposure to lead, a potent neurotoxicant, can impact babies and young children throughout their lifetime,” said Maria Doa, Senior Director of Chemicals Policy at Environmental Defense Fund. “Baby food should not add to the lead burden that many babies and young children already bear. EDF commends Attorney General James and the coalition for urging FDA to expeditiously reduce the risks to babies and young children from this toxic metal. It is crucial that FDA take action now.”

“Parents count on baby food to be safe and healthy for their little ones. The FDA has known for years that baby foods can contain lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals that can harm brain development. But their failure to set low limits and to require end-product testing has led to profound, real world suffering for hundreds of families across the country, including almost 50 in New York State alone, as cinnamon applesauce became an unsuspected route for high levels of lead last fall,” said Bobbi Wilding, Executive Director at Clean+Healthy. “Thank you to New York Attorney General James and all the other Attorneys General across the US for pressing the FDA to act. We strongly urge the FDA to live up to its duty of 'ensuring the safety of our nation's food supply' by taking action without delay. The nation's families are counting on you. Don't let us down again.”

“Babies are exquisitely sensitive to heavy metals,” said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, pediatrician and Director of Global Public Health at Boston College. “No level of metal exposure is safe for a young child, and early-life exposures to even very low levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury increase risks of brain damage, cancer, anemia, and kidney damage. As a pediatrician who has worked for decades to protect children against toxic chemicals in the environment, I strongly endorse AG James and the coalition of attorneys general in urging the FDA to rapidly reduce toxic metal levels in baby foods and to avoid any further delay in safeguarding babies' health.”

“There is no safe level of lead in children, so more harm is caused when FDA action continues to be delayed,” said Brian Ronholm, Director of Food Policy at Consumer Reports. “The recent recall involving lead poisoning in cinnamon applesauce products set off an alarm, and Consumer Reports commends Attorney General James for leading the fight on behalf of parents and caregivers to push FDA to act immediately.”

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorney General Max Shterngel, Chief Environmental Scientist Jodi Feld, and Environmental Scientists Amelia Grant-Alfieri and Linda Wilson, all of the Environmental Protection Bureau and under the supervision of Bureau Chief Lemuel M. Srolovic. The Environmental Protection Bureau is part of the Social Justice Division, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux. The matter is also being handled by Senior Advisor and Special Counsel M. Umair Khan of the Executive Division. Both the Division for Social Justice and the Executive Division are overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.