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FDA head calls on Congress to pass mandatory testing for lead in food

Last fall, lead-contaminated cinnamon applesauce pouches, imported from Ecuador, sickened hundreds of children. Food manufacturers aren't required to test for lead.
Weis, WanaBana and Schnucks apple sauce pouches.
Cinnamon applesauce pouches made by WanaBana were recalled last fall because of high lead levels.FDA

WASHINGTON — The head of the Food and Drug Administration urged Congress on Thursday to pass legislation mandating that food manufacturers test for lead in products imported to the United States.

Dr. Robert Califf’s comment was in response to a question from Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, during a hearing that touched on the FDA's response to issues including lead-contaminated cinnamon applesauce pouches, which have sickened hundreds of children

The applesauce pouches, from Florida-based company WanaBana, were recalled in the fall after they were found to have high lead levels. The pouches were imported from Ecuador.

Califf said the FDA oversees products from about 275,000 registered manufacturing facilities across the U.S. and abroad. Due to budget limitations, the agency often has to rely on the food manufacturers themselves to do their own testing. 

Dr. Robert Califf testifies
FDA Commissioner Robert Califf at a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing in Washington on Thursday.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

Most times they do a good job, ensuring the products are tested, he said; sometimes they don’t. 

“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,” Califf said, noting that there is no federal requirement for testing for lead in foods.

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

Complicating matters is that the FDA doesn't currently set limits on heavy metals in most foods. Only a handful, including chocolate candy and sugar-based candy, have specific lead limits. In 2022, the agency introduced draft guidelines for lead limits in juice.

Califf's comments come two days after an investigation from Consumer Reports, an advocacy group, found high levels lead in certain Lunchables products.

The group is now calling on the federal government to remove Lunchables from the national free and reduced-price school lunch program. 

The FDA would need Congress to enact legislation to give the agency the authority to impose mandatory testing, Califf said.

“At FDA, we're referees,” he added. “You all in Congress actually write the rule books.”