Elevated lead found in six ground cinnamon spice brands, FDA warns

Elevated levels of lead have been detected in six brands of ground cinnamon, the latest contamination of the toxic metal following a mass recall of contaminated cinnamon applesauce bags last fall.

The products (plastic bags and bottles of ground cinnamon often used in home cooking) have much lower levels of lead than those detected in the lead-contaminated cinnamon used in applesauce bags. But the Food and Drug Administration said in a statement Wednesday that “prolonged exposure” to the products can be dangerous and could contribute to elevated blood lead levels.

Cases of lead in applesauce in children rise amid questions over FDA oversight

The FDA advises people to throw away six brands of ground cinnamon under the names La Fiesta, Marcum, MK, Swad, Supreme Tradition and El Chilar. Products are sold at local and national retailers including Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Patel Brothers and Save A Lot. The FDA has asked companies to issue voluntary recalls.

The FDA said consumers should not eat, sell or serve ground cinnamon products, and the agency lists specific products much concern in a table on their website. If you have any of the ground cinnamon products at home, the FDA said, you should throw them away.

Why is lead found in cinnamon?

It is not uncommon to find low levels of lead in certain spices. While growing plants can sometimes absorb lead that exists naturally in the soil, the metal can also can be added during processing as a colorant or to increase the weight of spices.

The agency said several federal and state health officials conducted a “targeted survey” of ground cinnamon products sold at discount retailers, following the discovery last fall that WanaBana's cinnamon applesauce treats, Schnucks and Weis contained high levels of lead.

That investigation resulted in the recall of nearly 3 million squeeze bags. Since then, the contamination has been linked to at least 468 confirmed, probable and suspected cases of lead exposure in 44 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the latest investigation, all six ground cinnamon products had lead concentrations ranging from 2.03 to 3.4 parts per million. The FDA said the amount of lead is “significantly lower” than the levels found in ground cinnamon used in applesauce bags, which had between 2,270 parts per million and 5,110 parts per million of lead.

The agency said there are no reports of “illnesses or adverse events” associated with the use of ground cinnamon products in the recommended recall.

The FDA has recommended companies recall ground cinnamon products. But the agency said it was unable to contact MTCI, a distributor in Santa Fe Springs, California.

The risks of lead exposure

Long-term exposure to lead in ground cinnamon could contribute to elevated blood lead levels, the FDA said. And there is no safe level of lead exposure. Young children are especially at risk for lead poisoning because they can absorb four to five times more lead than adults, according to the World Health Organization.

According to the FDA, “high levels of lead exposure” over time in infants and young children could lead to neurological effects, learning problems, and lower IQ levels.

In a statement announcing the proposed recalls, the FDA said the agency is testing “colored spices” imported into the United States and that sampling “has prevented some cinnamon with elevated levels of lead from entering” the country. But the agency said manufacturers and importers are ultimately responsible for any lead contamination in their products.

The agency said it also sent a letter “to all cinnamon manufacturers, processors, distributors and facility operators in the U.S.” reminding companies to “prevent contamination” of ground cinnamon products and other foods.

The FDA has asked Congress to “require manufacturers to test ingredients or finished products marketed for consumption by infants and young children” before the products are sold in the United States. At the moment, the agency says, federal law does not require manufacturers to perform such testing.

"Today's actions serve as a signal to the industry that more needs to be done to prevent elevated levels of contaminants from entering our food supply," Jim Jones, FDA deputy commissioner for human foods, said in the statement. "The levels of lead we found in some ground cinnamon products are too high and we must do more to protect those most vulnerable to negative health outcomes from exposure to elevated levels of lead."

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