FDA head pushes for mandated lead testing by food manufacturers

April 11, 2024

The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Dr. Robert Califf, pushed lawmakers on Thursday to pass a bill that would mandate that food manufacturers perform testing for lead in their products that are getting imported into the country from overseas. 

Califf’s call to action came while he was answering questions from Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, during the committee’s Thursday hearing that examined the FDA’s response to the baby formula shortage, drug shortages and food safety. 

Part of the hearing mentioned the agency’s response to lead-contaminated applesauce pouches, during which Califf called for the legislation to be enacted as a way to address the issues. 

“So you advocated mandatory testing, you would like us to give you that regulatory authority,” Raskin asked. 

“Yes,” Califf answered. 

“What we can do, for example, in food for children is to have the manufacturers be required to do the testing,” he continued.

The FDA found elevated levels of lead in six brands of ground cinnamon spice in March, just months after the agency said that Florida-based WanaBana USA had voluntarily recalled three applesauce brands last fall due to elevated levels of lead. The pouches were produced and imported from Ecuador.

The FDA head stated the agency supervises around 275,000 registered manufacturing “establishments” in the country and overseas, but it commonly is forced to rely on those manufacturers to perform the test themselves since “we don’t have an unlimited budget.” 

“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 on Thursday. 

“And those kids ended up with lead poisoning, right?” Raskin asked, which Califf confirmed.

The agency tracks food for lead levels, but the U.S. government does not limit the levels that could be present in products. 

In January, a bipartisan group of lawmakers demanded a briefing from the FDA on the lead and chromium contamination of applesauce pouches. The brief was demanded to also discuss if the contamination was intentional.