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Lead Dread Comes to a Head

June 21, 2010

Remember how I said I would be watching my mail for a letter from Welch’s? Well, it arrived.

The timeline is a little strange.  I got the original less-than-satisfying email response on June 16.  The generic boilerplate letter I received with a few coupons “in appreciation of your time in contacting us” was dated June 13.  But the addendum, which is a specific statement about lead, is dated June 15.

Anyway, I wanted to share it with you, since it is kind of interesting.  And despite its official-looking nature, I can’t seem to find a copy of it on the Internet anywhere.

STATEMENT OF WELCH FOODS INC., A COOPERATIVE

(Concord, MA) June 15, 2010… Welch’s is deeply committed to the health and safety of its customers. We are aware of the notice of violation of California Proposition 60 that was filed by the Environmental Law Foundation (“ELF”) alleging that they found lead levels in a variety of children’s and baby foods, including grape juice, that require a warning to be displayed under California law.

Like many elements, small traces of lead do exist naturally in soil and in agricultural products. As a result, the FDA has set clear-cut guidelines on the level of lead that can be found in any food or beverage product. Welch’s and the National Grape Cooperative take these guidelines very seriously. Over the years, our testing has shown that our products are safely within FDA’s standards.

We are investigating the allegations outlined in the notice of violation and will give paramount importance to the safety of our customers as we do so. The health and wellbeing of our consumers is top priority and the standards we set for ourselves are reflective of this focus.

###

Honestly, it is kind of what I expected.  But it is also disappointing.  I would have liked to hear a commitment to an action plan, should indeed Welch’s confirm some of their juices have elevated levels of lead.  What I am unclear on, and perhaps some of the more scientifically minded people reading this can help with, is the gulf between the FDA limits and California’s Prop 65.

Prop 65 calls for a limit of 0.5 micrograms of lead per serving.
From the document below the FDA seems to limit lead to 50 ppb.

Lead is especially hazardous to young children. In 1993, FDA established an emergency action level of 80 ppb and above for lead in juice packed in lead soldered cans. (See the Federal Register notice of April 1, 1993 (58 FR 17233).) However, based upon a recent toxicological assessment for lead carried out by the Joint WHO/FAO Expert Committee on Food Additives, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international food standards organization that establishes safe levels for the protection of consumers, has recently established a maximum level of 50 ppb for lead in ready-to-drink fruit juices, including fruit nectars that are in international trade, to protect the public health. FDA concurs with this recent assessment that lead levels in juice above 50 ppb may constitute a health hazard, and FDA may in the future establish an action level for lead in juice at levels above 50 ppb. If you determine that lead is a hazard that is reasonably likely to occur in your juice, we recommend that you establish controls to ensure that lead levels do not exceed 50 ppb.

What is interesting about the FDA guidance document to the juice industry, dated March 3, 2004 is how it differs from the letter Welch’s sent me.  Primarily the difference is about the source of lead in juice.  Welch’s would have me believe that lead is naturally occurring in the soil, which may be true.  But the FDA gives a couple of different and very specific reasons.

Juice can become contaminated with lead if lead-contaminated produce is used to make the juice. Lead contamination of produce can occur as a result of past use of lead in agricultural settings. For example, past use of lead arsenate as a pesticide in what were apple orchards is believed to have caused persistent lead contamination of the soil causing carrots presently grown on these sites to contain elevated lead levels. Produce could also become contaminated with airborne lead if it is handled at sites where vehicles or equipment are operated that use leaded fuel, if the equipment is operated in a manner that exposes the produce to excessive emissions from the equipment.

As I mentioned last week, I’m picking on Welch’s because they are a big player in this whole fiasco. And despite everything, I still cannot find a single mention of this on their website.  Luckily they are involved in social media at least so far as to have a Facebook page.  So those who are interested in talking about the matter in a very public forum for the company only need to click the “like” button.

In lighter lead news, I stumbled upon an amusing bit of irony.  Dole, another large producer implicated in the Environmental Law Foundation’s report, is clearly concerned about warning its consumers about lead…just not in their products.*

*For the record I can find no mention of the ELF’s study or their response on their site.  To be fair I did see it mentioned in response to a consumer’s post on their Facebook wall.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2010 11:36 am

    ppb(parts per billion) = micrograms/Liter

    If Prop 65 calls for less than 0.5 micrograms per serving, the ppb is dependent on what they consider the serving size. So if the serving size is 100 mLs than the max ppb it should be is 5 ppb according to Prop 65.

  2. June 22, 2010 6:16 am

    I just took a look at the links in this post and your original, which led to the transcript of the NPR story and stopped there. It doesn’t give details of the tests but simply says that unsafe lead levels were found “across the board” in a variety of juices and fruits from multiple vendors.

    That’s an odd finding. It seems like some should be safe and some not. Since these manufacturers are already required to do food safety testing, it would seem likely that at least some of them would have found the lead contamination and done something about it.

    Here’s another possibility: what if the test is wrong? Perhaps it was conducted in a haphazard and unscientific manner. Perhaps the calibrations on the instruments were off that day. That would likely produce a result like “all preserved fruit products contain lead” would it not?

    If this is bad science and we all get our knickers in a twist over a problem that may not exist, everybody loses. I don’t have any love for Welch’s (fun fact, Robert Welch was the founder of the John Birch Society) but under the circumstances I might behave the same way they have in their response to you and their non-response on the web.

    By the way, I looked up the Environmental Law Foundation and they seem to be a legitimate group. I downloaded their notice of violation which was sent to a huge list of companies (among them Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Smucker, Gerber, Hansen as well as Welch) but it does not provide details of the test nor the findings.

    I feel like more information is needed–certainly, the actual results of the test and ideally, its reproduction by an independent lab to see if the results come out the same.

    • June 22, 2010 9:30 am

      I’m not a lawyer, but here is my understanding of what is going on with this report and the test findings.

      The Environmental Law Foundation isn’t just doing this as a PR stunt. They have filed the appropriate paperwork with the State of California, and now the companies listed in the complaint will have 60 days to respond. Part of this process involves that the specific results of the test stay confidential during this period. There seems to be a lot of wiggle room between Prop 65 and federal guidelines of safe lead limits. It would certainly be helpful to know where on that spectrum these violating products register.

      The NPR story overstates the results. I think it was about 85% of the tests came back as being higher than Prop 65 allows without carrying a warning label. These results are clearly high, and ELF attributes this to their selection of products that they identified as having a high probability of violating the state’s standards.

      But I wouldn’t start speculating this is based on bad science. I believe this was the point of running the tests in an EPA certified lab. Granted, verification is important. Even still, these are serious allegations that I would hope manufacturers would take seriously. My issue is that after contacting Welch’s I got the sense that they were comfortable with their lead levels being under the federal guidelines and saw this as more of a nuisance than a serious problem. And it was Welch’s response that led me to write about the issue and start commenting on their Facebook page.

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