FDA finds chromium, a second metal contaminant, in applesauce pouches

Federal investigators have discovered a second contaminant in recalled applesauce pouches — the naturally-occurring metal chromium, which in a certain form can cause a number of adverse health effects.

The finding is the latest development in the Food and Drug Administration’s international investigation of high levels of lead found in cinnamon applesauce pouches marketed to children. The pouches of fruit puree that have been recalled were manufactured in Ecuador and sold under the brand names WanaBana, Schnucks and Weis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking at least 287 confirmed, probable and suspected cases of lead exposure in 37 states linked to the applesauce recall.

The FDA has reported finding extraordinarily high levels of lead in samples of cinnamon from the Ecuador plant where the pouches were made. On Friday, the agency reported it had also found chromium. Chromium is an essential mineral found in foods and dietary supplements, but in one form — called chromium-6 — it can cause harm.

The agency’s investigators tested two samples of cinnamon collected from the manufacturer in Ecuador and found 1,201 and 531 parts per million of chromium. Investigators reexamined samples from the recalled WanaBana Cinnamon Apple Puree pouches and found 0.590 and 0.566 parts per million of chromium.

The Food and Drug Administration said it has not been able to determine the specific form of chromium detected in the cinnamon applesauce pouches or whether it poses a health risk. Federal investigators say people who ate the applesauce pouches, especially those who had elevated blood lead levels, may have been exposed to chromium and should tell their doctor so they can “monitor health and provide supportive care, as needed.”

In its guidance to health-care providers regarding the contamination and recall, the CDC noted that chromium-3 is an essential nutrient found in a normal diet and in some supplements. But it added that “chronic, prolonged inhalational and skin exposure” to chromium-6 has been associated with chronic lung disease and ulceration of skin and mucous membranes. “The exact form of chromium in the recalled applesauce products is unclear,” the agency said.

Lead chromate, which contains the potentially toxic chromium-6, has been used in the past to enhance the coloring of turmeric. Federal investigators say the “lead-to-chromium ratio” in the applesauce pouches “is consistent with that of lead chromate.”

According to the CDC, ingestion of chromium may lead to abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, anemia and renal and hepatic dysfunction. The agency also says there’s no antidote for treating chromium exposure.

“Information on the health effects of eating food contaminated with chromium (VI) are limited,” the FDA statement said.

The FDA says the agency is still investigating what caused the lead and chromium contamination and “whether additional products are linked to illnesses.”

But investigators said the chromium in lead chromate may be converted to the less toxic form chromium-3, “due to the acidity of the applesauce and the stomach.”

Michael Beuhler, the medical director of North Carolina Poison Control, said the discovery of chromium in the applesauce and cinnamon does not necessarily mean the substance will cause harm. He said that “at the levels we’re talking about,” he doesn’t believe there would be much chromium-6 in the pouches. Any chromium-6 that might have been present would probably reduce to a nontoxic form once inside the applesauce pouches, he said.

He said lead chromate could have been added as a powder to cinnamon to affect the weight and color of the spice. Lead chromate can be more than six times heavier than cinnamon, he said.

“I don’t believe that this is any cause for additional alarm,” Beuhler said. “But it does suggest why it happened.”

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