The FDA's Discovery of Lead-Contaminated Turmeric Powder

Imported Spices Continue to Pose Health Risks for Americans

Spices for sale
Michelle McMahon/Moment/Getty Images

Back in 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that distributors Fahman Enterprises Inc. (Dallas, Texas), OnTime Distribution (New York, New York), and Best Value Inc. of (Detroit, Michigan) all voluntarily recalled Pran brand turmeric powder. Imported from Pakistan, the turmeric powder was recalled because it was found to contain high levels of lead which could lead to health problems for consumers. As always, those at the highest risk of lead-based health issues included infants, small children, and pregnant women. This 2013 lead-contaminated turmeric recall is but one of the several contaminated spice scares in the last few years that have shed light on the food safety and regulatory issues surrounding imported spices.

The Discovery of Lead in Turmeric Powder

The 2013 recall was initiated after an FDA sampling discovered high levels of lead (48 to 53 ppm) in the Pran brand of turmeric powder. In the case of food, "ppm" stands for "parts per million" and is used to measure the concentration of a chemical or element found in food. Conducted by the FDA’s Total Diet Study and other monitoring programs, food is tested regularly for lead to ensure the safety of the U.S. supply. These tests are performed on a range of products including baby foods, fruit juices, canned fruit, and vegetable products.

The FDA reported that the recalled turmeric was distributed in the city of Dallas, Texas, several cities in New York and New Jersey, and to retail stores in and around Hamtramck, Michigan between July 2013 and September 2013.

History of Lead in Food Products

Over the years, the FDA has reported lead contamination in a number of food products ranging from baby food from China to candies from Mexico.

The United States has made significant strides in reducing lead in food products since the 1970s. In an effort to improve food safety, the FDA maintains an ongoing survey of the most important food products within the American food supply. The agency reports that the dietary intake of lead by small children has dropped more than 90 percent since 1979. In 1995, the United States banned the use of lead solder to seal goods canned in the U.S., which has drastically reduced the amount of lead found in these products.

According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2009 lead exposure from Mexican candies prompted the FDA to develop tighter guidelines for manufacturers, importers, and distributors of imported candies.

Lead Contamination and Accumulation

While the 2013 turmeric recall was prompted by unsafe levels of lead in the product, contamination levels aren't the only concern. In recent years, several companies manufacturing baby food and fruit juice products were taken to court due to a lack of proper warning labels for foods containing much lower levels of lead.

The FDA concluded that while these foods contain lead amounts lower than the federal standards that require warning labels on the product, they still can pose a risk, mainly due to the increased emphasis on eating these foods for their nutritional value. There is concern that accumulation of lead in the body could result in health and developmental issues in children.

Health Risks of Lead Accumulation in the Body

Over time, health problems including delayed mental and physical development and learning deficiencies arise as lead accumulates in the body. Pregnant women, infants, and young children should especially avoid significant exposure to lead.

Lead poisoning symptoms usually don’t reveal themselves until dangerously high amounts have already accumulated, and symptoms vary depending on the age of the person affected.

Newborns will show learning difficulties and slowed growth. Children often show irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, and learning difficulties.

While at a lower risk, adults still need to be well aware of the dangers of lead poisoning. Symptoms generally include high blood pressure, mood disorders, abdominal pain, memory loss, headaches, fatigue, pain in extremities, a decline in mental function, reduced sperm count, and abnormal sperm. Additionally, pregnant women are at risk of miscarriages or premature birth.

In the most severe cases where people are exposed to toxic levels, nerves and muscles often aren’t able to function properly and organs such as the kidneys can be impaired. Permanent brain damage can also occur. People concerned about lead poisoning should contact their physician or health clinic to ask about blood testing.

Food Safety and Imported Spices

Unfortunately, this 2013 recall was not the only case of contaminated imported spices in the United States. In addition to unsafe levels of lead, the FDA has identified other spice contaminants including Salmonella in recent years that have spurred the creation of new policies and procedures when it comes to imported spice products.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Recalls Pran Brand Turmeric Powder Due to Elevated Levels of Lead. 17 Oct. 2013.