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From the New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today, a Times investigation has revealed how apples laced with high levels of lead, which poisoned hundreds of children across the US, sailed through a food safety system meant to protect American consumers. I spoke with my colleague, Christina Juhet, about what she found.


It's Thursday, February 29th.


Christina, where does this story start?


So last summer, families all over America started to have a mysterious problem. Their kids had startlingly high blood lead levels. And this is extremely alarming for all these families because lead poisoning can lead to behavior problems, learning problems, developmental problems as well. Basically, no one knows where this is coming from.


Our daughter loves makeup and doing her nails. Dresses. Mm-hmm. And her son loves cars and airplanes.


Loud exhaust.


One of the families in this situation is Nicole Peterson and Thomas Young. They have two little kids, a little boy who's one and a daughter who's three.


Our son had gone to his first annual checkup, and they did a finger prick, and his blood level is high.


During their routine pediatric visits for the summer, they learn that the kids have high blood levels. We're talking about triple to quadruple the CDC's level of concern, basically. Wow.


It's like a nightmare, right? It was tough. Very tough.


That gets reported to the county. The Health Department sends out an inspector. He goes through their house with this lead X-ray gun, and he's shooting everything.


Every pot, pen, toys, I opened the rice cooker. It literally tests everything in.


This is a five-hour process.


The door frame, there was something in there, but there was no concern because there was no chipping, nowhere to.


It was encapsulated is what he had He finds some lead in a doorway in the basement.


He finds lead in a figurine that's a family heirloom.


Some antique birds that my grandmother had given me, but out of reach. They're seasonal. The kids are not putting them in their mouth.


None of these things are what the kids are touching or eating or are really playing with at all. It was really a mystery. Then the kids are screened again.


They get checked in the middle of August.


And their numbers have doubled. Their lead level doubled.


And the numbers have gone up into the 20s. And so now- That was 24. Yeah, everyone is, of course, very, very concerned, freaking out. They're saying that this has never happened before in county history, that this is the first time that they've seen us. Thomas and I weren't sleeping or not eating. This is driving us crazy and tormenting us.


So the family is freaking out. The parents get their levels tested, and it's normal. So now they're really, really facing a mystery. I mean, what are the kids exposed to that the parents are not? So the county goes out to the daycare, looks at everything there.


They spend a few hours at the daycare.


Nothing. They didn't really have any answers.


They really didn't know where to guide us or guide us there in the right direction. Yeah.


And then the parents start a food diary.


We all eat the same food. We don't eat different food. The kids don't get one meal, and we get another meal.


And they realize that there's one thing that the kids eat that they don't.


The only thing that they eat that we don't eat are these pouches.


It's these foiled packets of cinnamon applesauce that the family gives the kids as a routine snack.


They loved it. They would devour it, and they would eat it on the playground if they were just out and about. Now, because- Right.


I mean, every parent, me included, gives their kids a pouch of applesauce. It is the universal food of the American toddler.




What happens once the family narrows this down to applesauce.


The county health inspector comes out. They take samples of the packets. They take it to the state health lab in North Carolina, and they run some tests.


I think they had this on Friday.


Yeah, they called us on a Friday and said that they had gotten the report back from the lab and then they had tested positive.


What they find is basically an incredibly high level of lead in this applesauce. They forward that to the FDA, which quickly turns around and works with the company that made it to issue a recall.


It was just so nice to have a resolution. We know where this is coming from now, and we don't have to drive ourselves crazy in this constant nightmare. It's nice to have an answer.


Millions of these packets that were sold at DollarTree under the name Wana Bana, and also at Schnucks Market and Weisse Market grocery stores under the store brand. Those are all recalled.




Then the FDA tries to figure out how this lead got into the applesauce in the first place.


What do they find?


They pretty quickly narrow in on the cinnamon in the applesauce. There's this known problem in the spice industry where sometimes people will add lead chromate powder to make the color pop.


What is lead chromate, Christina?


Lead chromate is an orange yellow powder. It's still used in industrial applications overseas. Even though it's toxic, sometimes people illegally add it to spices, especially with tamaric or curry powder, that sometimes this is poured in to bulk up the spices. Like a drug dealer cuts the cocaine with flour or sugar or something. The FDA is realizing that could be what was happening in Ecuador, where this applesauce was processed. Officials from Ecuador are able to trace the cinnamon in the applesauce up the supply chain to a spicegrinder who they think is responsible.


Got it. So the FDA suspects that somebody grinding cinnamon is adding lead chromate to it, basically to make more money on the production of that cinnamon.


Exactly. Then it went to the company that made the apples, which shipped it off to the US. It landed in the ports of Baltimore and Miami and ended up right on grocery shelves to be handed to American infants and toddlers.


How many children, Christina, ended up consuming this lead-poisoned applesauce?


We know the kids in 44 states had this applesauce. The CDC has said that about 468 kids consumed this applesauce and had high levels of lead in their blood. The median level of lead in their blood was about six times higher than what we saw with the Flint lead and water crisis about a decade ago.




Yeah. As far as how many kids total, it could be so many more. There's probably plenty of parents who didn't have a blood screening, who didn't connect it to the apples. There's certainly others that didn't meet the case definition by the time this was discovered. Which required a certain level of lead in the blood.


Okay, so you're saying at the very least, nearly 500 very small children were consuming this contaminated apples and it's discovered that their blood is filled with lead. That's the very best case scenario.


Yeah, this is one of the worst toxic exposures of US kids in decades.


This, Christina, where you and the times come in, right?


That's right. I cover the FDA, which has a big infrastructure to protect our food supply. I wanted to understand how this occurred. I teamed up with another reporter, Will Fitzgibben, who works for a nonprofit called The Examination. It's a global health news organization. We wound up getting thousands of pages of documents from Ecuador, tracing their investigation, and interviewed a number of food safety experts to really figure out how the system failed to detect basically poisonous applesauce going on to store shelves all over America.


Right. Because ideally, you discover that apples is poisoned with lead before it enters the food supply system, not after it's entered the blood of little children.


Exactly. One expert I talked to basically said in this situation, the kids were like the canary in the coal mine, which is not what you want to see happen in a country with a sophisticated food safety system.


We'll be right back. So once Once you all conduct this investigation, what do you find? How did our regulatory system allow this applesauce to enter the US?


In the US, the food safety system is pretty robust. There are boots on the ground in every state, routine inspections of food-making facilities, and there's some precedent of criminal prosecutions for big failures. Things like Salmonella and Listeria get discovered pretty routinely. The biggest fears have always been about food that comes from outside the US, where we know less. There can be things added for financial gain. There can be pesticides we don't allow in the US. These fears really grow in the late 2000s with a scandal in China.


It's all about the chemical melamine. It can make protein levels look normal in quality test if milk has been watered down to cheat consumers.


People were adding this powder called melamine to infant formula and pet food. And what it did was mimic protein powder, but it was also really toxic. Nervous parents have rushed children to hospitals When it was revealed, baby formula was laced with the industrial chemical melamine. So six babies died in China. Why didn't the government test the formula more carefully, asked this mother. Hundreds of thousands of babies overseas got sick, and dogs and cats all around America got sick and also died.


It's a black eye for China's leadership. Consumer confidence in Chinese goods is falling to an all-time low.


I remember this really well, and it was seen as a wake-up call that there are some really bad actors in the world when it comes to food and food safety.


That's right. That creates some impetus to change the way the US oversees food that's imported from outside the US. That winds up coming together in 2011 with President Obama signing the Food Safety Modernization Act. That does a number of things. One of them is to really try to plug the holes in the system of imported food that are meant to prevent, really, what happened in China from happening again in the US.


And how does the new law envision that working?


Well, it does two big things. One is there would be more overseas inspections of food-making facilities. The FDA would actually send people into the food plants, they would take a look at all their processes, their procedures, their test results, how they're making the food safer to come into the US. That was actually supposed to reach a level of 19,000 inspections like that per year.


In short, they wanted to treat international inspections the way that they treat domestic ones, make sure that there are a lot of them, that they're frequent, and that they're likely to catch things.


That's right. The other thing it does is it puts US import companies, companies that import food, and it essentially made them guardians of the food that comes in to the US. They're not really used to having these food safety duties, but here they came anyway. What they're supposed to do is look at the food they're importing, identify the specific risks related to that food, and make sure those are dealt with. Oftentimes, they do this with consultants, and they're required to hire auditors to make sure they're doing a good job of basically eliminating risks. Sometimes these auditors go overseas and inspect the facilities on their behalf. So on paper, this looks like a pretty tight ship, something that can keep the lead or the melamine out of the US.


Right. And there's a redundancy at play here from what you just said, which is the US is going to be sending out inspectors itself to foreign food manufacturing facilities, and it's going to be asking food importers to do their own auditing of their suppliers so The thinking, I'm sure, is that between those two, something will be caught. Clearly, though, that didn't happen in the case of the apples sauce. What did you learn about why that is?


The law didn't quite work out as intended. The number of overseas inspections was supposed to reach 19,000. Well, that didn't come to pass. Last year, there were 1,200 inspections. That means FDA inspectors got to about 1% of the overseas food facilities.


Wow. A tiny percentage.


Oh, yeah. When it came to the company in Ecuador that made this applesauce, the company's called Austrofood, we found that the FDA hadn't been in that facility since 2019. When they were there, we don't think at the time they were using cinnamon. Overall, the FDA didn't find any problems that they recommended fixing.


I really wanted to pause on this. No one from the United States government, despite the ambitions of this law, had visited the facility where this apples sauce was made in the last five years. If there were any problems with any product leaving those facilities and headed for the US, the US government had no eyes and no ears on any of it.


Not on site, no. When we took a look at the second line of defense that's supposed to things like toxic apples sauce out of the US, the importers, we found out thousands of them just never set up programs to vet foreign food. So they hadn't taken up this guardian role that the government was trying to give them. In fact, the FDA has issued about 3400 citations to companies that weren't doing this at all. In this situation with the importers, no one would tell us exactly what happened with the apples sauce. But basically what we could piece together is that there was an auditor sent out to the applesauce making company in Ecuador late last year. When they took a look around, they wound up giving this company a grade of A plus, even as there are headlines all across the United States about kids being poisoned by lead tainted applesauce.


In the case of the applesauce, you're saying the auditor working on behalf of an importer whose job it is now to protect the US consumers, ends up issuing a pretty much perfect rating to the maker of this applesauce, even though, of course, we know that the apples is contaminated, suggesting that that auditor was clearly not doing their job very well.


Right. A lot of the experts we talked to said this is an honor system. When they say that, they're talking about the fact that all these companies have the discretion to choose which risks to worry about In this case, with this audit, it looks like the concern was Salmonella. So this lead that's widespread, well known at this point, was a non-concern as far as that audit went.


Christina, I'm curious. In this American system, what you describe so far are the responsibilities of inspections overseas, whether that's done by the FDA at a manufacturing site or by an importer who's supposed to hire an auditor to go to the facility. But once international food reaches the US, is there ever a moment where the American system kicks in and tests food, opens up a package or a pouch of apples and tests it?


You know, there is. There are tests that occur at the border, at the ports of entry, and the inspectors will open up a pouch of apples and test it. But the number of these tests has actually gone down. It's really fallen in half over the last decade. At the same time, the number of imported food products has gone way up. It's really at an all-time high, just down a hair from where it was in 2022. In essence, the border searches, those are really looking for a needle in a haystack.


Based on your reporting, I wonder if you have concluded that what happened here is the fault of a poorly constructed law or its lax enforcement, or if this is just the reality that in a global food supply chain with so many elements and manufacturers and facilities, that it's just going to be hard to detect something like a malevolent cinnamon supplier who adds a terrible toxin to food.


I I mean, yeah, I think in the best of systems, it's easy to envision how something could slip through. But this is such a close parallel to what our nation really grappled with almost 15 years ago in creating this new system of inspections and audits. What our investigation found, really, was that the system is not living up to those requirements at all. The inspections aren't anywhere close to where they were envisioned to be. The audits that were supposed to be happening in many cases aren't happening at all.


Right. You're saying even the best of systems might not catch something, but we don't have the best of systems. We don't even have the system that the law requires.




I want to return to the family that we met at the start of this conversation. How worried are they about what this lead poisoning will mean for those two very small children, and what do we understand to be the prognosis for those two kids?


Well, for all the families, the concern is that lead lives in the body forever. There are different junctures in your life where the lead can come out. It's in the bones, and your kid has a growth spurt, and some of that lead can come out. You may develop osteoporosis, and the lead can come out. So there are lifelong long ramifications. For Nicole and Thomas, the family we met from North Carolina, the health system takes this very seriously. They've been provided with nutritional counseling. They've been provided with specialists to help the kids meet their developmental milestones. But there is a sense that things will never be quite the same for them. They can't just walk into the grocery store, toss things into the cart, blithely, without having a second thought. After what happened to their young children, there will be a lingering sense, I would imagine, that the system really did fail them.


Well, Christina, thank you very much.


Thank you, Michael.


We'll be right back.


Here's what else you need to know today.


One of life's most underappreciated talents is to know when it's time to move on to life's next chapter.


On Wednesday, Senator Mitch McDonnell of Kentucky, the leader of the Senate Republicans for the past two decades, said he would give up that role at the end of the year. During a speech on the Senate floor announcing the decision, McDonald acknowledged that his policies, especially his view that reporting Ukraine is essential to US national security, are increasingly out of step with the rest of his party and its de facto presidential nominee, Donald Trump.


Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time. I have many faults. Misunderstanding politics is not one of.


And in a stunning admission of financial strain, Trump said he could offer a bond of only 100 million toward a Manhattan Court judgment of 450 million that he must pay in the coming weeks. If that bond is not accepted, Trump said he may need to sell some of his properties to come up with more cash. The admission made in a court filing highlights the degree to which the $450 million penalty, punishment for a year's long financial fraud, has created a cash crunch for the former President. Today's episode was produced by Alex Stern, Rochelle Banja, and Diana Wyn. It was edited by Liz O'Balen, contains original music by Marion Lozano and ROI Némistó, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Lansberg of Wunderly.. That's it for The Daily. I'm Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.