November 10, 2010; Updated November 29, 2011
FDA regularly tests food products commonly consumed by children for lead as part of the agency’s ongoing surveillance to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply. Testing is conducted annually or sometimes more frequently through FDA’s Total Diet Study and other food monitoring programs. These tests are performed on a range of products including baby foods, fruit juices, and canned fruit and vegetable products.
In July 2010, FDA completed its most recent check of amounts of lead in some specific brands of commercial juice and food products that contain fruit. None of the products exceeded current tolerable intake levels for lead that FDA has established for various age/sex groups to protect consumers from the known effects of lead such as impaired cognitive development in children.. The following Questions and Answers contain additional information that may be of interest to consumers.
Q: Why is lead in food products?
A: Lead is present in small amounts throughout the environment due to its natural occurrence and its release into the environment by human activities. Lead in soil can be deposited on or absorbed by plants, including plants grown for food. Lead that gets in or on the plant cannot always be completely removed by washing or other steps in the processing of the food. Many food products would be expected to contain very small amounts of the element -- in the range of parts per billion (ppb). A part per billion is equivalent to the value of one penny compared to that of 10 million dollars.
Q: Why is FDA concerned about lead in food products?
A: Exposure to large amounts of lead, whether from food or any other source, can affect numerous body systems including the central nervous system, the kidneys and the immune system. In children, chronic exposure to lead, even at low levels, is associated with impaired cognitive function, including reduced IQ, behavior difficulties and other problems.
Q: How much lead is in the food supply?
A: FDA’s Total Diet Study has marked dramatic progress in reducing lead in food products since the 1970s. The Total Diet Study is FDA's ongoing survey of 285 of the most important food products in the U.S. food supply, samples of which are collected as part of the study and analyzed to determine levels of various contaminants and nutrients. Data from the study show that dietary intake of lead by a 2-year-old child, for example, has dropped more than 90 percent since 1979.
Q: What is FDA doing about lead in food products?
A: FDA has monitored the levels of lead in food products for decades. The agency has taken action whenever necessary to remove from the marketplace products that contain too much lead, and has worked with the food industry over the years to reduce the amount of lead in food products. Despite the decades-long reduction of lead intake from food in the United States, FDA is continuing to work to reduce the amount of lead in food products as much as possible, especially in foods frequently consumed by children. In 2006 for example, FDA lowered its recommended maximum level of lead in candy likely to be consumed by small children to .1 ppm [100 ppb]. FDA is in the process of reviewing the available data as it considers lowering its guidance level for lead in juice.
Q: What specific products did FDA test in 2010?
A: FDA tested 13 samples of apple juice, grape juice, peach slices, pears, mixed fruit and fruit cocktail for lead. Some of the products FDA tested were intended for babies.
Q: Why did FDA test these products?
A: FDA tested these particular products because they were among those cited in a recent action by the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF), a California-based, private advocacy organization concerned with environmental and health issues. In that action, ELF sent notices on June 9, 2010, to numerous manufacturers of juice and packaged fruit products alleging the companies were not in compliance with the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, also known as California Proposition 65, because the manufacturers failed to disclose that the products contained lead. FDA decided to check lead levels in some of the products cited in ELF's action.
Q: Did the products contain lead?
A: A: Almost all the products FDA tested contained a small amount of lead, but in each case the level found was below FDA’s current tolerable intake levels for lead.
Q: Have additional products been the subject of notifications by the ELF in California since the June 2010 notifications and has FDA tested those products?
A: Some brands of baby foods containing carrots and sweet potatoes have been the subject of additional notifications by the ELF alleging that their manufacturers were not in compliance with California Proposition 65. For years FDA has regularly tested carrots and sweet potatoes for lead levels as part of its ongoing surveillance of the safety of the U.S. food supply. As noted above, while FDA occasionally finds very small amounts of lead in these foods --, in the range of parts per billion -- the lead levels typically found in these foods are below FDA’s current tolerable intake levels for lead.
Q: How much lead does FDA allow in food products?
A: FDA has established regulatory limits for lead levels in bottled water and in certain food ingredients (such as sugar). FDA has also provided guidance on lead levels in certain foods (such as candy and juice). For juice, FDA stated in “Guidance for Industry: Juice HACCP Hazards and Controls” that lead levels in juice above 50 ppb may constitute a health hazard. Where it has not established regulations, FDA assesses the significance of lead levels found in food on a case-by-case basis. None of the juices or other foods tested by FDA in the July 2010 survey contained levels of lead above FDA’s current tolerable intake levels.
In addition, the lead levels that FDA has historically found in foods like carrots and sweet potatoes that can be used as ingredients in baby food have mean levels of 15 parts per billion or less and are below FDA’s current tolerable intake levels.
Q: Does FDA know of any current recalls of juice or baby food products due to excessive levels of lead?
A: Only one, and it does not affect retail products. On November 2, Sunmet Juice Company LLC of Arvin, Calif., conducted a Class II recall from wholesale channels of pomegranate juice concentrate manufactured in 2009 because the product contained elevated levels of lead. A routine FDA inspection detected the problem. FDA and the firm are investigating the source of the elevated levels of lead. The concentrate is not sold at the retail level, and is not consumed in its concentrate form. The concentrate was sold to other manufacturers to produce products such as blended juice beverages. FDA has not identified any consumer-ready juice products manufactured using the recalled concentrate that contain levels of lead above FDA’s recommended maximum level for lead in juice of 50 ppb.