The discovery of several imported canned food items with extremely high lead levels during the past year has prompted the federal government to take emergency action to reduce the presence of the toxic heavy metal in foods exported to this country.
The lead problem is especially a concern among recent immigrants and others who traditionally depend on imported food products from Mexico, other Latin American countries and Asia.
"Children have been getting sick from drinking (canned) imported fruit nectars with elevated lead levels," says John Jones, FDA's strategic manager of pesticide and chemical contaminants. "This is an avoidable source of lead and it is of sufficient toxicological concern (to warrant immediate action)."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates 230 million pounds of imported food packaged in lead-soldered cans is sold in the United States each year. The figure represents as much as 10% of total food imports.
FDA, which conducted the laboratory analyses as part of routine monitoring of imported food, also announced this month that it will seek a ban on the use of lead-soldered cans as food containers. Domestic producers have voluntarily eliminated the use of lead seams in cans since November, 1991, an effort that began in 1982.
The maximum allowable lead levels just established for canned foods will be 80 parts per billion for fruit beverages such as juice and nectars. All other canned foods must have lead levels less than 250 ppb. The tougher standard for fruit beverages was established because FDA believes that infants and children are the primary consumers of these products.
The most severe case of lead contamination was discovered during a San Diego County screening program: an 18-month-old child was diagnosed with dangerously high blood lead levels. The child was regularly fed Jumex imported canned fruit nectar. FDA analysis of the brand found that the products contained between 255 ppb to 1,084 ppb of lead, the highest levels detected by the agency in the past three years of testing. The findings led to a nationwide recall of Jumex fruit beverages.
"(These levels are) high enough to cause permanent damage and disability to children consuming the product on a daily basis," states an FDA report.
Other import products found to have potentially hazardous lead levels include canned refried beans, jalapeno peppers and mandarin orange segments.
The FDA isn't the only agency investigating lead in canned food. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that elevated levels of lead in children's blood is a "major health risk" that is "totally preventable."
And then there's this warning from a 1991 report from the state's Department of Health Services, which discussed not only lead in food, but the threat from all possible sources: "Lead poisoning is the most significant environmental health problem for California children today."