FDA chairman wants Congress to mandate testing for lead, other harmful chemicals in food

The Food and Drug Administration chairman has urged Congress to pass a legislation that would regulate food manufacturers to test its products for lead and other harmful chemicals.

In a House Committee of Oversight and Accountability meeting Thursday, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., ranking member of the committee, asked the FDA what it plans to do regarding many products, including lead-contaminated cinnamon applesauce pouches that caused many children to become sick. Raskin said his children consumed a lot of cinnamon applesauce when they were younger, and he wanted to know what Dr. Robert Califf, the FDA chairman, and the FDA plan to do to regulate these products.

“What keeps you from inspecting every private manufacturing facility that produces things like cinnamon applesauce or peanut butter?” Raskin asked.

Using a sports game analogy, Califf said leaders in Congress are the players when its comes to these questions, and the FDA are the referees.

“You all in Congress actually write the rulebook much like in any sport. It’s the leadership that writes the books; we enact what’s in the book," Califf said. "And in the case of food establishments, like most sports, the first line of defense are the players in the game, which are the industry that produces the products.”

Califf said that to prevent harmful chemicals and metals from being in children’s food, manufacturers have to start testing its products like the pharmaceutical industry does.

“The manufacturers of drugs have to test every batch, and in the case of cinnamon applesauce − if there had been mandatory testing when it got imported into the U.S. from Ecuador ... it probably would’ve picked it up at that point,” Califf said.

Califf supported mandatory testing of children's food products and giving FDA the regulatory right to carry it out.

Is there lead in Lunchables?: What to know after Consumer Reports released guidance to USDA

Consumer Reports urges USDA to remove Lunchables from school menus over lead concerns

The statement from the FDA chairman comes days after Consumer Reports called on the Department of Agriculture to remove Lunchables from the National School Lunch Program because of "higher levels of sodium" and "high levels of lead" in the food kits.

“Lunchables are not a healthy option for kids and shouldn’t be allowed on the menu as part of the National School Lunch Program,” Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, which launched a petition to the USDA, said in a news release. “The Lunchables and similar lunch kits we tested contain concerning levels of sodium and harmful chemicals that can lead to serious health problems over time."

In a statement emailed to USA TODAY on Thursday, Kraft Heinz, the owner of Lunchables, said it was "extremely disappointed with the reporting from Consumer Reports and believe the results of their study are misleading."

WanaBana apple cinnamon fruit pouches recalled over lead contamination

This handout photo show images of applesauce packets recalled due to lead contamination.
This handout photo show images of applesauce packets recalled due to lead contamination.

The FDA chairman also mentioned the October 2023 recall of WanaBana apple cinnamon fruit pouches, which sickened more than 400 children across nearly all 50 states.

On Feb. 6, the FDA announced that the applesauce pouches contained lead because of a single cinnamon processor. Earlier FDA testing showed samples of cinnamon used in WanaBana apple cinnamon fruit pouches not only contained elevated lead levels but also the element chromium.

Coalition of attorneys general fights for regulation of lead, other toxins in children's food

The FDA chairman's plea on lead testing echoes sentiments from attorneys general in states across the U.S. who have formed a coalition. On Feb. 15, the coalition, made up of 20 attorneys general, sent a letter calling on the FDA to take urgent action to protect babies and children from lead and other toxic metals in baby food.

In an October 2021 petition, the coalition asked the FDA to issue specific guidance to the baby food industry. The guidance would require testing of all children food products for lead and other toxic metals, according to the news release.

Contributing: Natalie Neysa Alund and Jonathan Limehouse

Ahjané Forbes is a reporter on the National Trending Team at USA TODAY. Ahjané covers breaking news, car recalls, crime, health, lottery and public policy stories. Email her at aforbes@gannett.com. Follow her on InstagramThreads and X @forbesfineest.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FDA wants to stop lead in food, urges Congress to require testing